The Justice Department is launching a program to enforce protections against religious discrimination, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales announced Tuesday.
The First Freedom Project would increase education about religious discrimination by holding a series of training seminars throughout the country over coming months, Gonzales told leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Gonzales said he also plans to create a Religious Freedom Task Force, which will review policies and religious discrimination cases. He said he doesn't know how much the program will cost.
"One of our most cherished freedoms ... is our religious freedom," he said. "It is a fundamental part of our nation's history."
The first training seminar will be held in Kansas City, Mo., in March, followed by seminars in Tampa, Fla., in April and Seattle in May. Other dates and locations will be announced later.
As part of the new program, the Justice Department is setting up a Web site, http://www.firstfreedom.gov, with information on enforcement and how to file a religious discrimination complaint.
New spotlight on religious discrimination
Gonzales said a new report shows that the Justice Department has looked into more religious discrimination cases under the Bush administration. For example, he said cases of religious discrimination in education increased from one case reviewed and no investigations to 82 cases reviewed and 40 investigations.
The report on Enforcement of Laws Protecting Religious Freedom highlights the number of religious discrimination cases reviewed or investigated by the Justice Department for fiscal years 2001-06 compared to 1995-2000. It details religious discrimination cases involving employment, housing, credit, public accommodations, public facilities and other areas.
In the period studied, housing- and credit-related cases grew from four investigations and one lawsuit to 18 investigations and six lawsuits while religion-related appellate friend-of-the-court briefs rose from one to 16.
The Justice Department also reviewed 118 cases and 26 investigations related to land use issues since the enactment in 2000 of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which aimed to protect property rights of religious institutions.