WASHINGTON (ABP) -- While the Southern Baptists' Ethics and ReligiousLiberty Commission urged support for John Ashcroft as the next U.S. attorneygeneral, other religious leaders questioned the former senator's commitmentto the separation of church and state.

Responding to criticism by liberal interest groups including People For theAmerican Way and the National Organization of Women, ERLC President RichardLand wrote senators urging confirmation of the nomination by President-electGeorge W. Bush.

"On behalf of the vast majority of over 16 million Southern Baptistsnationwide, I urge you to support the confirmation of Sen. John Ashcroft,"Land urged lawmakers.

In a press statement, Land asked Senate Judiciary Committee members to"reject the religious test promoted by some radical voices who woulddisqualify Mr. Ashcroft from this office because he is willing to apply hisChristianity to his public life."

Land said that Ashcroft's "faith will make him a better attorney general,not a worse one."

Meanwhile, religious leaders from a variety of faith groups said in a pressconference that senators should question Ashcroft about his commitment toupholding the separation of church and state.

Welton Gaddy, executive director of the Interfaith Alliance, called Ashcroft-- a devout Pentecostal Christian -- "a man of deep and abiding faith," andsaid he respected Ashcroft's faith commitment. Gaddy said he had "graveconcern," however, about Ashcroft's ability as attorney general to upholdand fully enforce the constitutional rights of "faith groups that he clearlyjudges to be wrong and in need of correction."

Gaddy said the Interfaith Alliance is taking no stand on the nomination fornow but might oppose Ashcroft depending on how he answers questionsregarding religious liberty.

In a Jan. 11 letter to Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, the Interfaith Alliancecited "profound concerns" about Ashcroft's stands on school-sponsoredprayer, the posting of religious documents in public places andgovernment-funded proselytization.

"Some supporters of Sen. Ashcroft are suggesting that questioning hisnomination stems from hostility toward religion in American civic life,"Gaddy said. "Let me say unequivocally, we affirm his right as a person offaith to express that faith. However, we believe strongly that religion inthe public square must respect the rights of others to practice faithwithout imposing one ideology or belief."

Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee, also spokeat the press conference. The BJC is a 65-year-old religious liberty agencythat supports church-state separation. The BJC does not support or opposecandidates for office -- elected or appointed -- Walker said. But Walkerquestioned whether Ashcroft "is up to the job."

"It's important that the attorney general of the United States be committedwithout apology and without reservation to the separation of church andstate," Walker said. "Sen. Ashcroft's record reveals a hostility to and alack of understanding of that cherished principle."

"If he fails to protect the religious liberty of any American," Walkeradded, "the religious liberty of every American will be threatened."

Ashcroft defended his record on civil rights, voting rights and his ownopposition to some Clinton nominees at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearingJan. 16.

He vowed that if he is confirmed "injustice against individuals will notstand." Ashcroft also said that although he is opposed to abortion under anycircumstance he would enforce the law of the land as stated in Roe v. Wade."No woman should fear being threatened or coerced in seekingconstitutionally protected health services," he said in the hearing.

James Dunn, visiting professor of Christianity and Public Policy at WakeForest Divinity School in Winston-Salem, N.C., was scheduled to testifyagainst the Ashcroft nomination in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Dunn --former BJC executive director -- said he is not speaking for the BJC butwill oppose Ashcroft.

Another Baptist weighing in on the nomination is Robert Parham, executivedirector for the Baptist Center for Ethics based in Nashville, Tenn. In anop-ed article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Parham said: "Religiousconservatives are right when they say personal integrity matters forpolitical leaders. ... But they are wrong to hide faulty positions behindthe mask of personal integrity. And Ashcroft's positions on the separationof church and state are most troubling."

Parham said Ashcroft supports official prayer in public schools andreligious school vouchers. "He thinks the Supreme Court has erected 'a wallof religious oppression,'" Parham said.

According to Baptist Press, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission hasnever before endorsed a cabinet nominee before the Senate, but it did opposetwo Bill Clinton nominees in the past. Land said the agency does not endorsecandidates for elected office because individual Southern Baptists have theright to express themselves through the voting booth. In a process like aSenate confirmation, however, that opportunity does not exist.

"So when there are issues of vital concern to Southern Baptists at stake andwhere Southern Baptists have made those concerns abundantly clear, either intheir confessional statement or convention resolutions, we feel it isincumbent upon us to make certain that the people's elected representativesare aware of those convictions and values," Land explained.

"The vast majority of Southern Baptists would be upset with the ERLC if wewere not expressing support for this man of sterling integrity and bedrockChristian faith," Land said.

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