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Statement by Mark J. Pelavin, Associate Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism

Jefferson Memorial
January 16, 2003

Contact:Alexis Rice or Randi Levine 202-387-2800

Good afternoon. I am Mark Pelavin, Associate Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and I am here today on behalf of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and the Central Conference of American Rabbis. These two organizations represent 1.5 million Reform Jews and 1800 Reform rabbis throughout North America.

On this anniversary of National Religious Freedom Day, and in the shadow of this magnificent monument, we are reminded of the words of Thomas Jefferson's historic Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which wisely declared that no citizen "shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever.…" Jefferson's wisdom has served this nation well and has allowed religions to flourish here as nowhere else in the world.

Like the chill in the air today, however, there are ill winds blowing on Capitol Hill. Although the 108th Congress is only a few weeks old, Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-MO) already has introduced a proposal (H.J. Res. 7) to amend the U.S. Constitution to permit government-organized prayer in public schools or other public institutions. While claiming to protect the religious rights of all Americans, such an amendment is divisive, unnecessary, and would, in fact, greatly reduce our most cherished religious liberty.

As a religious community, we know that prayer has deep value and power. As members of a religious minority, however, we are all too aware of the danger of amending the Constitution to sanction government-sponsored prayer. Not long ago in this country, many Jewish and other minority students were made to feel like outcasts in their own schools, given the unfair choice between participating with their fellow students in morning Christian prayer or leaving the classroom to stand alone in the hallway. Our public schools are for all our children, regardless of their religious beliefs. No student should have to feel ostracized by fellow students for refusing to participate in a majority-chosen prayer.

An amendment allowing public schools to lead captive classroom audiences in prayer would interfere with parents' rights to raise their children according to their own religious beliefs and would raise numerous troubling questions: Whose prayer would be prayed? Which faith groups would get more days for their prayer? Who would assign prayer opportunities? What would those who object to the prayer do during prayer time?

Such an amendment would trigger divisive battles among the hundreds of religious traditions represented in our diverse society as religious groups compete to lead school children in their sectarian prayers. A school forced to referee these fights almost inevitably will favor majority faiths, thereby infringing on the rights of religious minorities, and creating one more way for some students to feel like outcasts.

Such a constitutional amendment is unnecessary because we already have a religious freedom amendment. It is called the First Amendment. The First Amendment, ingeniously conceived by Jefferson and our founding fathers, has helped to create a nation steeped in a diverse and vibrant religious tradition and has allowed all citizens to worship in whatever way they prefer, or to refrain from religious activity. Such a constitutional amendment is disingenuous because so many of the wrongs the sponsor claims to be righting could be addressed with proper application of current law. Let me repeat: proper application of current law would address nearly all claims purported to necessitate this specious legislation. If somewhere in this nation a child is being told by her teacher or principal that she cannot say grace over her lunch, then the answer is to educate the teacher or the administrator-not to amend the Constitution.

If individual, voluntary prayer is permitted in public schools under current law - as everyone agrees it is - then surely those who seek to amend the Constitution must have something else in mind. Or is it possible that they are so cynical that they would threaten the First Amendment to score political points?

We are blessed to live in the most religiously diverse nation in the history of the world, where more than 2,000 religions, denominations, and sects live side by side. America is the nation where all religions -- including minority religions -- enjoy the most freedoms, the most rights, and the most opportunities in the world. A defining concept of America is its constitutional guarantee, through the Establishment Clause, that our status as citizens will never depend on our religious beliefs and practices. Organized school prayer constitutes an unmistakable government endorsement of religion, and we will make it a priority to defeat legislation that attempts to undermine our religious liberty by altering the Constitution.

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The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism is the Washington office of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC) , whose over 900 congregations across North America encompass 1.5 million Reform Jews , and the Central Conference of American Rabbis(CCAR) whose membership includes over 1800 Reform rabbis .



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