WASHINGTON — One of the main jobs at the Justice Department is enforcing the nation's civil rights laws. So when a nonprofit group was accused of employment discrimination last year in New York, the department moved swiftly to intervene -- but not on the side one might expect.
The Salvation Army was accused in a lawsuit of imposing a new religious litmus test on employees hired with millions of dollars in public funds.
When employees complained that they were being required to embrace Jesus Christ to keep their jobs, the Justice Department's civil rights division took the side of the Salvation Army.
Defending the right of an employer using public funds to discriminate is one of the more provocative steps taken by a little-known arm of the civil rights division and its special counsel for religious discrimination.
The Justice Department's religious-rights unit, established three years ago, has launched a quiet but ambitious effort aimed at rectifying what the Bush administration views as years of illegal discrimination against religious groups and their followers.
Many court decisions have affirmed the rights of individuals in the public sector not to have religious beliefs imposed on them -- the Supreme Court ruling banning school-sponsored prayer in public schools among them. And courts have ruled that the rights of religious groups sometimes need protection too -- upholding, for example, their right to have access to public buildings for meetings.
But the argument that a religious institution spending public funds has the right to require employees to embrace its beliefs -- and that it will be backed by the Justice Department in doing so -- has changed the debate. It is an argument the Bush administration is making in Congress as well as in the courts.
Central to the competing points of view are the protections afforded by the 1st Amendment: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."
The webpage of the Justice Department unit reads: "Religious liberty was central to the Founders' vision for America, and is the 'first freedom' listed in the 1st Amendment of the Bill of Rights. A critical component of religious liberty is the right of people of all faiths to participate fully in the benefits and privileges of society without facing discrimination based on their religion."
Likening the effort to the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the special counsel for religious discrimination has intervened in an array of religious disputes.
In some cases, the government's stand has been applauded by secular civil rights groups as well as religious groups.
For example, the Justice Department prevailed last year when a Muslim girl's right to wear a head scarf to class was upheld -- she had been suspended for violating the dress code at a public school in Oklahoma. The department also has challenged the practice of making residents at some youth detention facilities in the South participate in religious activities.
In other areas, the department is implementing the will of Congress or the Supreme Court. It acted, for example, to enforce a 2000 law that gives preferential treatment to religious groups in zoning disputes over the construction of churches.
But critics say there is a fine line between promoting religious rights and promoting religion, especially in light of the constitutional requirement that the government maintain strict neutrality when it comes to religious activities.
Judging from the cases and investigations the religious unit has launched, the new mission of the Justice Department is overwhelmingly focused on protecting the rights of religious organizations.
Eric Treene, the religious-discrimination special counsel, is the former litigation director of a nonprofit group, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. The group has been active in suing schools and local governments on behalf of religious groups.
Treene, one of four special counsels in the civil rights division, has no staff and shares a secretary with two other Justice Department lawyers. But a former senior Justice official describes him as widely influential, bird-dogging cases he thinks the department should throw its weight behind and reaching out to religious groups for bias cases he believes the department should investigate.
Neither Treene nor his boss, R. Alexander Acosta, head of the civil rights division, were available for interviews.
Many religious people freely embrace the principle of separation of church and state -- in particular when it involves providing publicly funded social services -- and don't welcome the attention of the Justice Department on the issue.
"There are many God-fearing people who would say that mostly what they want is for the government to leave religion alone," said Melissa Rogers, founding executive director of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and a visiting professor of religion and public policy at Wake Forest University Divinity School.