September 23, 2014 · 28 Elul

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Statement by Rabbi David Saperstein on the Upcoming Challenges for Church-State Separation
Text of Rabbi David Saperstein's speech on the Upcoming Challenges for Church-State Separation, delivered at the Saving Religious Liberty Press Conference, January 13, 2005.

America’s unmatched history of religious liberty has been secured by our long-standing and unwavering commitment to the separation of church and state.  The combination of the First Amendment’s Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses ensures that Americans of all faiths and of no faith are protected.  It is because of this separation that it does not matter if 290 million Americans worship differently than you; or if 535 members of Congress hold different faiths than you; or if nine members of the Supreme Court and the President of the United States practice a religion other than yours.  The Constitution not only protects your religious faith but also ensures that your rights and opportunities as an American citizen do not depend upon your religious identity, beliefs, or practices.  It is for this reason that I was deeply troubled by the President’s comment this week that he cannot see “how you can be president, without a relationship with the Lord.”  Such an assertion violates the spirit of the Constitution’s ban on religious tests for political office and endangers the strength of the religious pluralism and tolerance that the President has so often affirmed and re-affirmed in the same interview.  Yesterday, we called on the President to act affirmatively to prevent Americans from misunderstanding his remarks by clarifying that he rejects any religious test for the office of the Presidency.

 

Today, Constitutional protections separating church and state are under intense attack.  Out of the religious right’s triumphalism after November’s election, threats to the wall separating church and state have intensified.

 

We see renewed vigor for the public displays of the Ten Commandments, relegating anyone not adhering to their religious message to the status of outsider.  We hear the Administration claiming the election results to be a mandate for expanding the President’s faith-based initiative, funneling government money directly to “pervasively sectarian institutions” -- synagogues, churches, and mosques -- which can then take that public money and discriminate in their hiring practices simply based upon the religion of the applicant.  We may well see revivals of efforts to pass constitutional amendments to establish school prayer or to change the Establishment Clause. 

 

One of the first attacks we expect to see, as the Christian Coalition just reiterated to its constituents yesterday, is the so-called “Houses of Worship Free Speech Restoration Act.”  The bill, introduced by Representative Walter Jones (R-NC) during the last two Congresses, will most certainly be reintroduced this year.  It would amend the tax code to permit houses of worship to engage in partisan electoral activity while maintaining their tax-exempt status.  The bill’s proponents have packaged it as an effort to protect houses of worship, arguing that current law restricts them from speaking about moral issues. 

 

These arguments simply could not be more deceptive or untrue. 

 

Under current law, America’s religious leaders, and its churches, mosques, synagogues, and other houses of worship have the absolute right, and have always had the right, to teach about moral, social and political issues in our communities, our nation, and our world - and to do so with tax-deductible dollars.  Under the rules that govern all non-profit organizations, houses of worship can even engage in modest amounts of advocacy, thus fulfilling the prophetic religious obligation to speak truth to power. 

 

Rather than providing protection for religious organizations, this legislation seeks to dismantle important safeguards that protect the integrity of religious institutions and the political process.  The proposed bill would allow tax-exempt houses of worship to engage in electioneering funded by tax-deductible dollars—transforming sanctuaries into political campaign headquarters and blurring the line between church and state.  Congregations would be plunged into divisive political battles, pitting congregant against congregant and congregant against clergy.

 

We have cherished, and fought for, the right of religious institutions to function free from the heavy hand of government.  For houses of worship now to subject themselves to government monitoring and regulation of their election activity is to invite restrictions on the religious autonomy that is so vital to our churches, mosques, and synagogues. 

 

This bill is not about free speech.  It is about partisan politicking occurring under the cloak of religious authority underwritten by a tax exemption.  To use houses of worship as political stumps and campaign staging grounds would tear down that wall protecting religion, would undercut sensible campaign finance reform, and would be disastrous for both the organized American faith community and for our nation as a whole.

 

As Jewish Americans, members of a religious minority, we strive to protect our religious liberty through effective prohibitions on the establishment of religion.  The wall of separation between church and state, ingeniously conceived by our nation’s founders, has allowed religion to flourish in America unmatched anywhere in the democratic world.  How ironic if, in the name of religion, the great achievement of our Constitutional framers should now be dismantled and, thereby, religious freedom diminished and curtailed.

 

We stand here today, for the sake of America and its religious faith groups, to say that we will defend our freedoms and protections so that our children will inherit the same free and pluralistic America that we treasure.

 

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