Ashcroft passes out devotional books to the three to 30 people who attend the sessions in his personal office or a conference room, The Washington Post reported. They're known as RAMP meetings with a four-point focus--Read, Argue, Memorize, and Pray.
"The purpose of the Department of Justice is to do the business of the government, not to establish a religion," said a Justice attorney, one of several critics who refused to be identified by name. "It strikes me 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 recent speech: "It is against my religion to impose my religion on people."
Top staffers say his practice is not any different from numerous prayer sessions held in congressional offices.
"He has never in any way insinuated that I should be going to these meetings, and I never felt I've been hindered by not attending," said David 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 another lawyer called it "alienating."
But Shimon Stein, a department analyst and Orthodox Jew, said he finds the meetings beneficial.
"Growing up in the circle I did, I didn't have a chance to study other religions, so it's very educational for me," said Stein, the only non-Christian who regularly participates.
The newspaper pointed out other signs of Ashcroft's approach to the department. New style guidelines have been issued for correspondence with his signature. Now forbidden are references to "pride," considered evil in the Bible, and the phrase "no higher calling than public service."
Abraham Foxman, chief of the Anti-Defamation League, said that while some may feel uncomfortable with Ashcroft's practices, they do not appear to be coercive. "As long as there are no memos going out or no mandate, it's probably fine," Foxman said. "But there is a thin line."