Ashcroft's Daily Bible Studies Draw Criticism, Support

WASHINGTON, May 15 (RNS)--Attorney General John Ashcroft's daily Biblestudies at Justice Department offices have drawn criticism from stafferswho do not share his Pentecostal Christian beliefs. But others familiarwith the practice say it has not made them uncomfortable.

Ashcroft passes out devotional books to the three to 30 people whoattend the sessions in his personal office or a conference room, TheWashington Post reported. They're known as RAMP meetings with afour-point focus--Read, Argue, Memorize, and Pray.

"The purpose of the Department of Justice is to do the business ofthe government, not to establish a religion," said a Justice attorney,one of several critics who refused to be identified by name. "It strikesme and a lot of others as offensive, disrespectful and unconstitutional.... It at least blurs the line, and it probably crosses it."

Ashcroft, who declined to comment on the matter, said in a recentspeech: "It is against my religion to impose my religion on people."

Top staffers say his practice is not any different from numerousprayer sessions held in congressional offices.

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"He has never in any way insinuated that I should be going to thesemeetings, and I never felt I've been hindered by not attending," saidDavid Israelite, deputy chief of staff to Ashcroft.

A career lawyer in the department criticized the daily meetings as"totally outrageous" and a threat to career advancement and anotherlawyer called it "alienating."

But Shimon Stein, a department analyst and Orthodox Jew, said hefinds the meetings beneficial.

"Growing up in the circle I did, I didn't have a chance to studyother religions, so it's very educational for me," said Stein, the onlynon-Christian who regularly participates.

The newspaper pointed out other signs of Ashcroft's approach to thedepartment. New style guidelines have been issued for correspondencewith his signature. Now forbidden are references to "pride," consideredevil in the Bible, and the phrase "no higher calling than publicservice."

Abraham Foxman, chief of the Anti-Defamation League, said that whilesome may feel uncomfortable with Ashcroft's practices, they do notappear to be coercive. "As long as there are no memos going out or nomandate, it's probably fine," Foxman said. "But there is a thin line."

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