MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
From NPR News, this ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
And I'm Robert Siegel. The Justice Department Civil Rights Division handles allegations of discrimination in housing, education, employment, voting - and for the last three years, one high ranking lawyer has been assigned to identify cases of religious discrimination. This is the first time in the history of the Justice Department that such a job has existed. NPR's Ari Shapiro reports.
ARI SHAPIRO: Eric Treene's title is Special Counsel for Religious Discrimination. The Justice Department presents him as an advocate for people who suffer discrimination because of their religion. Critics call him an advocate for religion in the public sphere.
CHRISTOPHER ANDERS: He's both.
SHAPIRO: Christopher Anders is legislative counsel at the ACLU. He's worked with Eric Treene, and at times, against him.
ANDERS: He and the administration have been pushing a very specific agenda, and there is lots of parts of that that are good and that fit with what the civil rights division's been doing for a long time in stopping discrimination. But it also - he's also at the center of a push towards getting the government to fund religious practices.
SHAPIRO: One of the cases that most upsets Treene's critics involves the Salvation Army. A group of employees sued the company, saying it uses government money to impose its religious views on workers. The civil rights division stepped in on the Salvation Army's side. A judge through out some of the employee's claims, and others are still being litigated. But the government's position in the lawsuit baffles Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
BARRY LYNN: The Justice Department seems to be promoting the idea of religiously based discrimination, even with taxpayer funds.
SHAPIRO: In other cases, critics questions the civil rights division's involvement in cases that may not clearly be national discrimination issues, such as one where schools wouldn't allow kids to distribute candy canes with religious messages. Critics also question why there's no special counsel for racial discrimination or age or gender. Treene wouldn't comment for this story, but the Justice Department's records show some religious discrimination cases that even Treene's critics agree with.
In one instance, the department sued an Oklahoma school district that wouldn't let a Muslim girl wear a headscarf. In another, they intervened on behalf of an orthodox Jewish man who was denied a public transportation job in Los Angeles because his religion prevents him from working on Saturdays. But Lynn says those cases are not representative.
LYNN: The great majority of cases do not involve Muslims or Hindus or Zoroastrians or Scientologists. They involve fundamentalist Christians trying to promote a radical agenda, now with the backing - and taxpayer funded backing - of the Department of Justice.
SHAPIRO: That's not the perspective of Kevin Seamus Hasson. He's chairman and founder of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, where Treene worked before he went to the Justice Department.
KEVIN HASSON: I especially applaud his continuing commitment to the breadth of religious liberty. That is to say it's not just faith of any one particular group that deserves protection. It's the religious expression of everybody.
SHAPIRO: Hasson remembers when he first met Treene. It was about 12 years ago. They were both lawyers at a corporate firm, and Hasson says Treene seemed different from the others.
HASSON: Eric was one of those rare young lawyers who wasn't interested in just paying off his loans as fast as he could or making partner as soon as possible, but was actually taking a broader view of the law and his place in it.
SHAPIRO: Hasson left firm life to create the Becket Fund. Treene called him for a job about two years later.
HASSON: And I said, well, there isn't really a slot that I had in mind. But Eric, if you're available, I'll take you right now.
SHAPIRO: One way Treene finds discrimination cases is through religious nonprofit organizations. And one of the groups that's been most successful at getting Eric Treene's ear is the Liberty Legal Institute in Texas. They've worked with the Justice Department on at least six cases. Hiram Sasser is the group's director of litigation.
HIRAM SASSER: One of the things that I've noticed is that whenever the Department of Justice decides to become involved in a case - at least in our cases - most of the time that has led to the other side quickly settling and doing the right thing.
SHAPIRO: Of course, opinions differ as to what the right thing is. In one case, Liberty Legal sued a school when a teacher required students to say they believe in evolution. Sasser says the government never would've gotten involved in a case like that before. The fact that they do so now reflects the work that Eric Treene has done. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.