A fundamental premise of the First Amendment is that "the State is firmly committed to a position of neutrality" with respect to religion. School District of Abington Township v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203, 226 (1963). The Supreme Court has repeatedly reaffirmed the requirement of government neutrality toward religion, explaining that "’[a] proper respect for both the Free Exercise and the Establishment Clauses compels the State to pursue a course of ‘neutrality’ toward religion, favoring neither one religion over others nor religious adherents collectively over nonadherents." Board of Education of Kiryas Joel Village School District v. Grumet, 114 S. Ct. 2481, 2487 (1994). Despite this clear constitutional mandate, John Ashcroft’s record reflects several disturbing incidents that suggest preferential treatment of religious institutions.
For example, in 1985, Governor Ashcroft supported and signed into law a bill eliminating the requirement that colleges training Missouri teachers be accredited by a regional accrediting agency, such as the North Central Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools. Unless a teacher were trained at such an accredited college, he or she could not be certified to teach in Missouri’s public schools. The law eliminating that requirement was enacted to benefit the Baptist Bible College in Springfield, Missouri—Jerry Falwell’s alma mater—a sectarian institution that for reasons of "philosophical differences," according to the school, had never sought accreditation from North Central. See "Bible College Hopes to be Accredited," St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Oct. 21, 1985). Baptist Bible College was accredited by the American Association of Bible Colleges, an organization made up of schools that prepare students for Christian ministry.
Baptist Bible College had asked the Missouri Board of Education to accept its accreditation from the American Association of Bible Colleges in lieu of accreditation from North Central, but was turned down unanimously by the Board. According to one Board member, "We voted against changing the rule because we believed it involved a church-state issue. We believed it was wrong for the board, which is in charge of public education, to allow the American Association of Bible Colleges to be part of the Missouri public school teacher certification process." "Bible College Hopes to be Accredited," St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Oct. 21, 1985.
Baptist Bible College then turned to the state legislature, which passed the new rule prohibiting the Board of Education from requiring certification from a regional association. Ashcroft traveled to the campus of Baptist Bible College in order to sign the bill into law there, and claimed the new rule would "open up the teacher certification process." Id. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, this was "the only bill-signing ceremony the governor held this year on a private college campus." Id. Educators criticized the measure. The former president of the state’s National Education Association said, "We’re appalled. It’s going to weaken the whole state teacher training program." "Ashcroft Sticks by Guns on College Accreditation Law Change," St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Nov. 8, 1985. And the head of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education said that the new rule would make Missouri the only state that does not require regional accreditation of colleges offering teacher education. "Bible College Hopes to be Accredited," St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Oct. 21, 1985.
In 1985, Missouri also had the dubious distinction of being the only state in the country to exempt church-run day care centers from even the most minimal of health and safety regulations. "The Governor and the Kids," St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 13, 1985. This meant that such day care centers did not have to meet state fire codes or health requirements. Nonetheless, Ashcroft opposed legislative efforts to eliminate that special exemption. Ironically, Ashcroft claimed that his opposition to health and safety licensing requirements for church-run day care facilities was premised on his interest in "preserving the distinction between church and state and not having the state involved in licensing church operations wherever we can avoid it." "Lawmaker Says She’ll Push for Daycare Changes Despite Ashcroft’s Opposition," UPI, Dec. 3, 1984. A bill introduced in 1985 to remove the special exemption for church-run day care centers failed even though it specifically prohibited the state from interfering in what was taught in such centers. And according to a 1992 report, bills to remove the special exemption had been introduced annually, without success; in the prior year, "Gov. John Ashcroft got it stalled in committee." "Maybe This Year," Kansas City Star, Jan. 26, 1992.
Ashcroft’s opposition to the imposition of health and safety regulations on church-run day care centers raises serious concerns not only about his preferential treatment of religious institutions, but also about how he, as Attorney General, would interpret and implement so-called "charitable choice" laws. Would Ashcroft argue that churches and other religious institutions should be exempt from laws that generally prohibit discrimination in programs receiving federal funds? Would he argue that church-run drug treatment centers receiving "charitable choice" funds under recently enacted federal law be exempt from health and safety regulations? These concerns endanger the well-being of the persons who are the beneficiaries of such programs in addition to their right to be free from discrimination. They also undermine the requirement of government neutrality toward religion, a principle to which anyone who would serve as the United States Attorney General must be committed.