WASHINGTON (ABP) -- While the Southern Baptists' Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission urged support for John Ashcroft as the next U.S. attorney general, other religious leaders questioned the former senator's commitment to the separation of church and state.

Responding to criticism by liberal interest groups including People For the American Way and the National Organization of Women, ERLC President Richard Land wrote senators urging confirmation of the nomination by President-elect George W. Bush.

"On behalf of the vast majority of over 16 million Southern Baptists nationwide, 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 would disqualify Mr. Ashcroft from this office because he is willing to apply his Christianity 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 press conference that senators should question Ashcroft about his commitment to upholding 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," and said he respected Ashcroft's faith commitment. Gaddy said he had "grave concern," however, about Ashcroft's ability as attorney general to uphold and fully enforce the constitutional rights of "faith groups that he clearly judges to be wrong and in need of correction."

Gaddy said the Interfaith Alliance is taking no stand on the nomination for now but might oppose Ashcroft depending on how he answers questions regarding religious liberty.

In a Jan. 11 letter to Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, the Interfaith Alliance cited "profound concerns" about Ashcroft's stands on school-sponsored prayer, the posting of religious documents in public places and government-funded proselytization.

"Some supporters of Sen. Ashcroft are suggesting that questioning his nomination stems from hostility toward religion in American civic life," Gaddy said. "Let me say unequivocally, we affirm his right as a person of faith to express that faith. However, we believe strongly that religion in the public square must respect the rights of others to practice faith without imposing one ideology or belief."

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

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

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

Ashcroft defended his record on civil rights, voting rights and his own opposition to some Clinton nominees at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Jan. 16.

He vowed that if he is confirmed "injustice against individuals will not stand." Ashcroft also said that although he is opposed to abortion under any circumstance he would enforce the law of the land as stated in Roe v. Wade. "No woman should fear being threatened or coerced in seeking constitutionally protected health services," he said in the hearing.

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

Another Baptist weighing in on the nomination is Robert Parham, executive director for the Baptist Center for Ethics based in Nashville, Tenn. In an op-ed article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Parham said: "Religious conservatives are right when they say personal integrity matters for political leaders. ... But they are wrong to hide faulty positions behind the mask of personal integrity. And Ashcroft's positions on the separation of church and state are most troubling."

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

According to Baptist Press, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission has never before endorsed a cabinet nominee before the Senate, but it did oppose two Bill Clinton nominees in the past. Land said the agency does not endorse candidates for elected office because individual Southern Baptists have the right to express themselves through the voting booth. In a process like a Senate confirmation, however, that opportunity does not exist.

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

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

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