To his detractors, he was a yokel from the heartland with an ax to grind, a religious zealot intent on beating non-believers into submission and banning abortion the first chance he got.

But three months into John Ashcroft's tenure as Attorney General, a new picture of the Man from Missouri has emerged.

His decision to investigate alleged civil-rights violations in Cincinnati after rioting there last month has been applauded by civil-rights groups, and Ashcroft has reiterated the pledge he made during his Senate confirmation hearings to combat racial profiling in law enforcement.

There are even whispers in some parts of Washington that Ashcroft is a closet liberal.

Not that the drumbeat has subsided entirely. This week, Ashcroft came under fire for his long-running practice of holding prayer meetings before work each morning. Critics said it was an effort to blatantly inject religion into the running of a federal agency.

The devotional meetings are a holdover from his days in the U.S. Senate. The Washington Post reported this week that, as is common in many congressional offices, employees gather at 8 a.m. for half-hour meetings that begin with a prayer. They then read and discuss the meaning of Bible verses and memorize a psalm or Biblical story.

Ashcroft's aides said any Justice Department employee is welcome to attend, although only a handful of staffers do. Among those who do not attend are his chief of staff, David Ayres, his deputy chief of staff, David Israelite, and his spokeswoman, Mindy Tucker.

The devotionals are regarded as private events and the media is not included. Aides say there is no formal, open invitation to the entire Department of Justice because of concerns that some employees might be offended.

Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, told the Post that it's inappropriate for the nation's chief law-enforcement officer to "inject religion so blatantly into the agency." Employees, he said, may feel pressured to embrace Ashcroft's religious beliefs as a result.

One Justice Department lawyer told the Post, "It's alienating. He's using public spaces to have a personally meaningful event to which I would not be welcome, nor would I feel welcome."

Others describe the brouhaha as little more than a "press-generated controversy."

"His highest-level aides feel no pressure to go to them, and they don't go," said Kevin Boyle, a New York attorney and former Supreme Court clerk with close ties to several Justice Department employees. "This makes it pretty clear he isn't forcing religion on anyone."

"Just because the meetings bother some people doesn't mean they are somehow illegal," Boyle says. "If Ashcroft were a smoker and had cigarettes at 8 a.m. with other smoking employees, the press would probably quote some unnamed Justice lawyer saying that 'the smoking meeting seems exclusive and I feel that I have to take up smoking if I want to get ahead in my career.'"

Assertions about the alienating nature of the prayer meetings conflict with comments by other former Ashcroft staffers. Tevi Troy, Ashcroft's senatorial policy director, who describes himself as "an observant Jew," defended the ex-senator's Christian devotion.

Troy wrote in the The New Republic earlier this year that he "didn't go" to Ashcroft's morning Bible studies "and suffered no adverse consequences."

"Whenever staffers ate with the Senator," Troy said, "someone began the meal with a prayer ... [but] Ashcroft pointedly insisted that prayers not mention Jesus, in order to be inclusive of all the religions in the office."

Department of Justice spokeswoman Susan Dryden said she's not aware of any formal complaints being filed about the devotionals by Justice Department employees.

Ashcroft has in fact delighted many outside the agency — even some of the most vocal critics from his nomination battle.

Civil-rights groups have expressed satisfaction for his call to investigate alleged civil rights violations in Cincinnati in the wake of recent riots there. Advocates for the disabled have been pleased with his decision to press for greater compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish group, recently stood with Ashcroft at an ADL luncheon and praised the attorney general, calling him a "distinguished statesman" and describing him as someone who is "fully committed to fair treatment for all Americans."

Foxman had expressed strong reservations about Ashcroft's nomination for Attorney General.

Boyle, the New York attorney, sums it up by saying, "The focus on Ashcroft's prayer meetings is a thin disguise for the fact that nobody can seriously contend he is doing a bad job. I think everyone agrees that he has done a great job taking care of business so far."

— Fox News' Bryan Sierra and The Associated Press contributed to this report

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