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Reform Jewish Movement Apologizes to Secretary Paige; Remains Troubled by Remarks on Religion

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

WASHINGTON, April 25, 2003 - In a letter today, Mark Pelavin, Associate Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, apologized for unfairly characterizing U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige's remarks regarding religious pluralism and schools and urged him to support public education, noting, "We look forward to working with you to promote and celebrate the religious diversity that is a hallmark of our nation's public education system."

The complete letter follows:


I write today to apologize for my letter on April 10 criticizing your remarks regarding religious pluralism and schools. I deeply regret unfairly characterizing your remarks based on my reliance on the Baptist Press report-a report that has since been found to have been inaccurate. I therefore misquoted you and did not acknowledge that one of your comments referred specifically to higher education. In keeping with general policy, I waited several days after the initial report to see if there would be a clarification but, in the absence of such a clarification, I wrote to you with my concerns. I am pleased that the interview reporter will no longer be working for Baptist Press.

Upon reading the complete transcript of the interview, your belief in the importance of "getting the idea across that every child has value and that every child can learn and that every child deserves our very best and most intense effort in ensuring that they have the greatest opportunity for education" is to be applauded. The Reform Jewish Movement is eager to work with you to provide a quality education for every child.

Even as we apologize for misrepresenting your views, we remain troubled by some of your comments. According to the transcript, when asked why you believed that animosity toward religion and God in schools existed, you replied, "It's a real puzzle to me. My upbringing just shields from me from even thinking that way, so I can't imagine why, what's at the root of all of that." We are concerned that your response falsely acknowledges that there is animosity toward religion in schools. This is an assertion that we often hear from those who wish to promote unconstitutional official religious activity in public schools. In fact, the separation of church and state, for which you have expressed support, has allowed religion to flourish like nowhere else in the Western world. As you know, private, voluntary religious activity is not only permitted in public schools; it is constitutionally protected. Of course, a student may say grace before lunch, offer a private prayer for the safety of the football team, or paint a Biblical scene in art class. However, our Constitution prohibits schools from organizing such religious activity. Rather than demonstrating animosity toward religion, this prohibition protects our nation's religious diversity.

In addition, when discussing the benefits of religious education, you stated, "In public schools there are so many different kids from different kinds of experiences that it's very hard to get consensus around some core values." We continue to be disappointed by the failure to acknowledge the immense values of diversity and tolerance that come from students of different races and religions learning together in a classroom. Although students may not all have the same religious value system, religious diversity itself is a value that can greatly enhance education.

We also disagree with the support for private school vouchers that you expressed during the interview. We believe that vouchers would have a destructive effect on our nation's public schools and promote a dangerous entanglement of church and state. Vouchers do not improve academic achievement; do not guarantee school choice; divert crucial funds from public schools to private, mainly religious, schools, which have no public accountability; and detract from public education reform. Under your leadership, the government should invest energy and resources in programs that reinvigorate the public school system so that all children can have the quality education to which they are entitled.

Again, I apologize for misquoting you and for failing to view your comments in the proper context. We look forward to working with you to promote and celebrate the religious diversity that is a hallmark of our nation's public education system.

Respectfully,
Mark Pelavin
Associate Director
Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism



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