Focus on Ashcroft over office prayer sessions


WASHINGTON, May 29 (JTA) — Congress may start its day with a prayer, but there is still a clear separation of church and state when it comes to organized prayer and the federal government.

Or is there?

Prayer or Bible studies have been held for years in congressional buildings. But is there a difference if a senator, congressman or cabinet secretary holds the prayer session in his office?

That question has put Attorney General John Ashcroft back under scrutiny. As a senator, Ashcroft held devotionals in his office.

Now, as attorney general, he is holding them at the Justice Department, welcoming any and all staff.

Ashcroft’s religious views and conservative ideology concern some Jewish organizations, a number of which opposed Ashcroft’s nomination as attorney general.

Held about three times a week, the devotionals take place at 8 a.m., before the government workday officially begins. Participants — from as few as four or five to as many as 20 — lead the group in reading verses from the Old and New Testaments, memorizing psalms and offering prayer.

“I don’t see a problem as long as there is no coercion and there is nothing to make people uncomfortable,” said Rabbi Levi Shemtov, director of the Washington office of American Friends of Lubavitch.

Shemtov said equal freedom must be applied to those who are religious and those who seek to have complete separation from religion.

However, Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said Ashcroft must be “very cautious” not to step over the line.

There is no real prohibition against Ashcroft conducting a religious event in a personal capacity, Saperstein said. But, he added, for a supervisor in a government setting — let alone the attorney general — to conduct such an event sends out certain signals.

“There is a real risk that employees may feel coerced or pressured that they participate,” Saperstein said.

When Ashcroft held devotionals in his Senate office, Shimon Stein, an Orthodox Jew, attended because he was interested in learning about other faiths. Ashcroft asked Stein, a legislative correspondent, if there was anything he could do to make him more comfortable.

Now working in an anti-domestic terrorism office in the Justice Department, Stein said he never has felt pressure to attend the devotionals — but he continues to attend.

It would be a “poor assumption” to think that attendance at the devotionals is tied to greater access to Ashcroft, Stein said.

Stein said he enjoys learning about Christianity and sharing insights with other participants.

“Occasionally I can kick in a good Rashi,” he said, referring to the revered medieval commentator on the Bible and Talmud.

Tevi Troy, a former Ashcroft staffer, said he never felt pressured to attend and found no correlation between attendance and success in the office.

In a speech to the Detroit Economic Club in 1998, Ashcroft, who belongs to the Assembly of God faith, distanced himself from the favorite themes of the religious right.

“We must embrace the power of faith, but we must never confuse politics and piety,” he said. “For me, may I say that it is against my religion to impose my religion.”

Pressure, however, could be in the eye of the beholder. Some people might even perceive public awareness of the devotionals as government endorsement of religion, Saperstein warned.

There are a number of Congress-wide Bible study sessions. The Center for Christian Statesmanship has been ministering to the House and Senate for six years and sponsors weekly sessions that are open to all. The Capitol Jewish Forum sponsors study sessions and an occasional minyan.

The Senate chaplain leads a senator’s Bible study and a Senate staff prayer group each week. On the House side, members meet for a weekly prayer breakfast.

While staffers say they hear of sessions run in individual offices, no member of congress was clearly identified.

Either way, the issue raises potential problems, according to Saperstein. If the Bible study is Congress-wide, it raises the specter of government endorsement of religion; if the session is run in an individual office, there is more chance of coercion.

The debate continues as to how fine a line Ashcroft can walk.

“Maybe those who have sought to tone down religion in public have gone a little too far,” Shemtov said. “It’s time for a fresh look at what level of religion in public might just be appropriate.”

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