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Reform Jewish Movement Urges Bush Not to Fund Programs or Organizations Engaged in Religious Conversion

Contact: Jeff Mandell (202) 387-2800

WASHINGTON, May 24, 2001 - As President Bush travels to Cleveland to deliver a major speech in support of his "faith-based initiative," Rabbi David Saperstein, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, today urged the President to promptly and publicly state that he does not endorse the use of government funds to support religious programs aimed at converting Jews and adherents of other faiths.

In a letter to President Bush, Saperstein called the President's attention to yesterday's Congressional testimony by the Executive Director of Teen Challenge (an Evangelical Christian Drug Treatment program often praised the President), who reportedly talked about the Jews who had become "completed" through participation in his program.

The complete text of the letter follows:

    Mr. President:

    Yesterday, the Executive Director of Teen Challenge, an Evangelical Christian substance abuse treatment program of which you've often spoken highly, testified before Congress and sounded a wake-up call for those in the religious community seriously concerned about religious proselytization within government-funded programs.

    You've often highlighted the power of religious organizations to help individuals overcome drug addiction. And I understand that you are planning on speaking about your "faith-based initiative" again today. You've also noted, wisely, that part of the effectiveness of faith-based social service programs derives from their expressing and teaching the transforming power of religious faith. As you've eloquently stated, "the goal of these faith-based groups is not just to provide services, it is to change lives."

    We share this belief in the transforming power of faith, and commend you for highlighting the work of religious groups. At the same time, we have raised profound concerns about direct government funding of pervasively sectarian organizations that seek to change lives through religious conversion, worship, and proselytization, arguing that directly funding such programs (whether or not government funds are used for this specific activity) will violate the Constitution, divide and weaken our nation's religious community, and result, in real life, in the abuse of the rights of beneficiaries at a very vulnerable and pivotal hour in their lives.

    These dangers were dramatized yesterday in testimony by Reverend John Castellani, the Executive Director of Teen Challenge, before the House Government Reform Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy and Human Policy. As you are well aware, Teen Challenge is an evangelical Christian program that seeks to help individuals overcome drug addiction by adopting faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. According to attendees at the hearing, while answering a question regarding Teen Challenge's work with non-Christian clients, Rev. Castellani testified that while some Jews who participated in his programs return to their traditional Jewish faith, others, after going through his drug treatment program, become "completed Jews." [Emphasis added] "Completed," in this context, denotes the acceptance of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior by a Jew, thus "completing" the Jew's religious identity.

    Mr. President, this statement on "completed" Jews by Reverend Castellani illustrates a key reason we have spoken out against charitable choice laws. Even if they do not directly fund such proselytizing activity, charitable choice laws will fund and strengthen organizations that make proselytizing a core component of their work. We cannot believe that it is your intent that the government should fund programs that are, for example, aimed converting the Jewish, agnostic, Muslim, Catholic, or Hindu or other citizens of our land to a particular form of Protestant Christianity or any other religion. When you speak about your initiative today, we urge you to publicly clarify that you will not support government funds seeking Jewish children-or anyone else's children-for conversion.

    When speaking of the need for government to help faith-based organizations transform lives, is proselytizing of Jews and other non-Christians what you had in mind? Are you prepared to lend government endorsement and support to programs or organizations with such an overt mission?

    We thank you for your consideration of our concerns, and urge you to take the opportunity of your remarks in Cleveland today to address the danger of publicly funded religious groups that seek to convert others.

    Rabbi David Saperstein

Chai Impact Action Center
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