The Bible study begins each day at 8 a.m. sharp, with Attorney General John D. Ashcroft presiding. A group of employees gathers at the Main Justice building in Washington, either in his personal office or a conference room, to study Scripture and join Ashcroft in prayer.

Ashcroft held similar meetings each morning as a U.S. senator and sees the devotionals as a personal matter that has no bearing on his job as attorney general, according to aides. Spokeswoman Mindy Tucker said Ashcroft wants to "continue to exercise his constitutional right to express his religious faith." Any employee is welcome, but not required, to attend, his aides said.

But within the massive Justice Department, with about 135,000 employees worldwide, some who do not share Ashcroft's Pentecostal Christian beliefs are discomfited by the daily prayer sessions -- particularly because they are conducted by the nation's chief law enforcement officer, entrusted with enforcing a Constitution that calls for the separation of church and state.

"The purpose of the Department of Justice is to do the business of the government, not to establish a religion," said a Justice attorney, who like other critics was unwilling to be identified by name. "It strikes me and a lot of others as offensive, disrespectful and unconstitutional. . . . It at least blurs the line, and it probably crosses it."

"It's alienating," another lawyer said. "He's using public spaces to have a personally meaningful event to which I would not be welcome, nor would I feel welcome."

Ashcroft declined to comment on the devotional meetings, and reporters have not been allowed to attend. But top Justice Department officials say his Bible studies at Justice should be viewed no differently from those organized and attended by many members of Congress.

"It is against my religion to impose my religion on people," Ashcroft said in a recent speech.

Several aides also said many of Ashcroft's top staffers -- including the chief of staff, the deputy chief of staff and the communications director -- have never attended the devotional meetings, nor have they been pressured to do so. They say that the sessions are open to all Justice employees, Christians or otherwise, and that one of the regular participants is an Orthodox Jew.

"He has never in any way insinuated that I should be going to these meetings, and I never felt I've been hindered by not attending," said David Israelite, Ashcroft's deputy chief of staff. "He's a religious man, and he's been attacked by folks because of that. . . . I've known John Ashcroft for 15 years, and there is no more tolerant person that I've been around in my life."

The federal government's "Guidelines on Religious Exercise and Religious Expression in the Federal Workplace," issued in 1997 after bipartisan negotiations, say supervisors and department heads must be especially careful with religious activities or statements.

"Because supervisors have the power to hire, fire or promote, employees may reasonably perceive their supervisors' religious expression as coercive, even if it was not intended as such," the guidelines say. "Therefore, supervisors should be careful to ensure that their statements and actions are such that employees do not perceive any coercion . . . and should, where necessary, take appropriate steps to dispel such misperceptions."

Religious faith has always been central to the life and career of Ashcroft. As the son and grandson of Assemblies of God ministers, he went on to become a state attorney general, governor and U.S. senator from Missouri.

Ashcroft considered a run for the presidency with support from leading Christian conservatives, and has regularly cited God and Scripture in speeches and policy statements. In 1998, Ashcroft said at a Christian Coalition event that "a robed elite have taken the wall of separation designed to protect the church and they have made it a wall of religious oppression."

The next year, he told Bob Jones University graduates that America was founded on religious principles, and "we have no king but Jesus." That statement became the subject of some controversy at his confirmation hearings.

The morning devotionals are not the only sign that Ashcroft approaches religion differently from his predecessor, Janet Reno, who ran a strictly secular office. At a Black History Month celebration in February, for example, Ashcroft prayed with a minister, who urged Justice employees to join in.

The department also issued new style guidelines for correspondence carrying Ashcroft's signature. They forbid, among other things, the use of "pride," which the Bible calls a sin, and the phrase "no higher calling than public service."

"He's running the department like a church, complete with rituals and forbidden words," said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "That is deeply troubling."

Ashcroft refers to his daily devotionals as RAMP meetings -- Read, Argue, Memorize and Pray. Attendance ranges from three to 30, including some from outside Justice, but centers on a regular core of a half-dozen Justice staffers with long-term ties to Ashcroft.

All employees are invited to attend, but Tucker said no department-wide memorandum or invitation has been issued.

Ashcroft hands each participant a devotional book from a stack he has used for years, Tucker said. The book highlights a Bible verse or passage for each date of the year, and the group spends the first minutes discussing its meaning, according to a participant.

The group then moves on to a memorization, with the goal of committing to memory a psalm or Bible story through repeated readings.

The session ends with a prayer, often including a reference to a relative or acquaintance who is ill or in need. The prayer is usually ecumenical, but at times has referred to Jesus or other Christian figures. Although sometimes led by Ashcroft, the prayer is more often recited by another volunteer.

Shimon Stein, 24, a Justice program analyst who worked in Ashcroft's Senate office, is the only regular participant who is not a Christian. Stein, an Orthodox Jew, said he finds the meetings fascinating from a theological perspective and enjoys discussing matters of faith with the attorney general and his co-workers.

"He's made every effort to make everyone and everything feel comfortable," said Stein, who was the only participant other than Ashcroft identified by Justice officials. "There is theological discussion and textual discussion. . . . Growing up in the circle I did, I didn't have a chance to study other religions, so it's very educational for me."

Many members of Congress and their employees participate in Bible studies, prayer meetings and other religious gatherings. A Christian magazine, Charisma, recently estimated that about 30 Bible study and prayer groups regularly meet on Capitol Hill.

President Bush is reported to set aside time each day to read the Bible. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), the defeated vice presidential candidate, does the same with the Talmud.

Ashcroft's aides say his devotionals are similar expressions of personal faith.

"These go on on the Hill all the time, and he's done this for years and years and years," Tucker said. "He's always done them in his office, and that's how he started his day."

But advocates for the strict separation of church and state, as well as some Justice employees, said Ashcroft is now in a far different position from when he was a U.S. senator. As the leader of the nation's top law enforcement body, they contend, he has a responsibility not to offend employees of different faiths or test the limits of accepted guidelines.

Laura W. Murphy, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Washington office, said Ashcroft is at least violating the spirit of the federal rules on workplace prayer.

"Ashcroft has a right to pray in office, but he does not have a right to implicitly or explicitly force others into praying with him," she said. "Ashcroft's the chief defender of the nation's civil liberties. He can't pretend to be just another citizen leading prayers."

A career Justice lawyer agrees, calling the devotionals "totally outrageous."

"It feels extremely exclusive, that if you don't participate in that kind of religion, that your career could be affected by it," the attorney said. "If I had some political aspirations and wanted to work for the front office and didn't have the same religious feelings as he does, my non-participation could adversely affect me."

Others say the issue is muddier than that. Harvard Law School professor Phillip B. Heymann, who was deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration, said the prayer sessions are "not clearly wrong or illegal. But the main practical worry is that anybody might think they may be closer to the attorney general if they prayed with him, or more able to influence him. . . . It's really sort of on the edge."

Abraham Foxman, chief of the Anti-Defamation League, said that he understands the concerns of those who are uncomfortable, but that the practice does not seem coercive.

"As long as there are no memos going out or no mandate, it's probably fine. But there is a thin line," Foxman said.

"A lot of it depends on the individual involved. . . . What I know is that John Ashcroft is a fair guy, and he will bend over backwards to make everyone feel comfortable."

Attorney General John D. Ashcroft calls the devotionals RAMP meetings -- as in Read, Argue, Memorize and Pray.