WASHINGTON -- In recent years, the Bush administration has recast the federal government's role in civil rights by aggressively pursuing religion-oriented cases while significantly diminishing its involvement in the traditional area of race.
Paralleling concerns of many conservative groups, the Justice Department has argued successfully in a number of cases that government agencies, employers or private organizations have improperly suppressed religious expression in situations that the Constitution's drafters did not mean to restrict.
The shift at the Justice Department has significantly altered the government's civil rights mission, said Brian K. Landsberg, a law professor at the University of the Pacific and former Justice Department lawyer under both Republican and Democratic presidents.
"Not until recently has anyone in the department considered religious discrimination such a high priority," Landsberg said. "No one had ever considered it to be of the same magnitude as race or national origin."
Cynthia Magnuson, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department, said the agency has "worked diligently to enforce the federal laws that prohibit discrimination based on religion."
The changes are evident in a variety of actions. They include:
Intervening in federal court cases on behalf of religion-based groups such as the Salvation Army that assert their right to discriminate in hiring in favor of people who share their beliefs although they are running charitable programs with federal money.
Supporting groups that want to send home religious literature with schoolchildren; the government helped win the right of a group in Massachusetts to distribute candy canes as part of a religious message that the red stripes represented the blood of Christ.
Vigorously enforcing a law enacted by Congress in 2000 that allows churches and other places of worship to be free of some local zoning restrictions. The division has brought more than two dozen lawsuits on behalf of churches, synagogues and mosques.
Taking on far fewer hate crimes and cases in which local law enforcement officers might have violated someone's civil rights. The resources for these traditional cases have instead been used to investigate trafficking cases, typically involving foreign women used in the sex trade, a favored issue of the religious right.
Sharply reducing the complex lawsuits that challenge voting plans that might dilute the strength of black voters. The department initiated only one such case through the early part of this year, compared with eight during a comparable period in the Clinton administration.
Along with its changed civil rights mission, the agency has tried to overhaul the roster of government lawyers who deal with civil rights. It has transferred or demoted some experienced civil rights litigators while bringing in lawyers, including graduates of religious-affiliated law schools and some people vocal about their faith, who favor the new priorities. That has created unease, with some career lawyers disdainfully referring to the newcomers as "holy hires."
The new emphasis has been embraced by some groups representing Muslims, Jews and especially Christian conservatives, who have long complained that the government ignored their grievances about discrimination.
"We live in a society that is becoming more religiously diverse, even by the hour," said Kevin Seamus Hasson, who founded the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty 12 years ago.
"So it's entirely appropriate and slightly overdue that the Justice Department is paying more attention to the various frictions that increasing religious diversity is causing in the society."
Combating racism remains an important mission, Hasson said, but one that has changed over the years: "We can now deal with the problems of racism more effectively on a more local level. We don't always need the federal government to come riding over the hill."
Some religious figures, though, are more wary about the changes. Robert Edgar, president of the National Council of Churches, a liberal-leaning group, agreed that it was important to take on issues such as religious discrimination and human trafficking.
But the problems of race and poverty in America "still require the highest caliber of attention," said Edgar, who pointed to the flawed government response to New Orleans and its mostly poor, black population after Hurricane Katrina.