A legal opinion allowing the Justice Department to dole out a $1.5-million grant to a Christian aid group that makes religious belief a condition of employment is shining new light on an obscure office that interprets laws across the government.
The Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel, which issued the interpretation last year to little notice, has been a target of congressional Democrats for its blessing of detainee interrogation techniques and a warrantless eavesdropping program that nearly provoked a mass resignation of top law enforcement officials four years ago.
Much of the work of the office remains secret. But legal experts predict that more rulings will be made public in the waning days of the Bush administration, as officials try to lock in policies they favor before a successor takes the stage.
Dawn Johnsen, an Indiana University law professor and a former acting chief of the OLC, asserted that the Bush administration's broad view of executive power and its tendency to bypass Congress made it all the more important for the next president to begin reviewing legal opinions right after the November election.
Johnsen said that she "definitely would put" the religious freedom opinion on a list of interpretations to be analyzed by the new president.
Faith-based initiatives have been a priority for President Bush. Sen. John McCain, the GOP nominee, supports the efforts of religious organizations to win federal grants, while his Democratic rival, Sen. Barack Obama, has indicated that at least some forms of discriminatory hiring would be impermissible were he to win the presidency.
In the latest opinion, lawyers concluded that World Vision, a Christian group that supports impoverished families in nearly 100 countries, could accept a $1.5-million gang prevention grant from the Justice Department's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention even though Congress has barred discrimination by grant recipients.