Reform Jewish Leader Criticizes Bush-Cheney Campaign for Politicizing Religion and Jeopardizing Houses of Worship
Pelavin: These actions hurl a wrecking ball at the wall separating church and state, and it is America's houses of worship that will be taking the blow.
WASHINGTON, June 3, 2004 - In response to the Bush-Cheney reelection team's effort to enlist campaign support among "friendly congregations" in Pennsylvania and to the White House announcement that President Bush had expanded his "Faith-Based Initiative" into three new federal departments, Mark J. Pelavin, Associate Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, released the following statement:
This week, the Bush-Cheney reelection campaign and President Bush took new steps to politicize religion and jeopardize the integrity of houses of worship for partisan purposes. At the first ever White House National Conference on Faith-Based and Community Initiatives last Tuesday, the President continued his deeply misguided effort to advance his so-called "Faith-Based Initiative" despite Congressional opposition. That same afternoon, the Bush-Cheney reelection campaign sent out an email to members of clergy and others in Pennsylvania seeking to enlist campaign support in 1,600 "friendly congregations" across the state. In each case, and especially when taken together, these actions hurl a wrecking ball at the wall separating church and state, and it is America's houses of worship that will be taking the blow.
While it is ostensibly aimed at recruiting individuals to distribute general information about the campaign, the Bush-Cheney e-mail directed at members of "friendly congregations" puts in jeopardy the non-profit status of 1,600 houses of worship by encouraging them to engage in partisan politics. Under the tax code, houses of worship are forbidden from endorsing or opposing candidates for public office or to intervene in political campaigns. Churches, synagogues, and mosques can and should run voter registration drives, hold neutral, informational candidate forums, and openly discuss the political issues of the day. But congregants should not pass out partisan flyers at a prayer service and clergy cannot endorse candidates from the pulpit. Our houses of worship should be a goad to our collective moral and civic conscience, not the arm of a partisan political machine. Disturbingly, the Bush-Cheney campaign seems to disagree.
The President further demonstrated a pattern of ongoing indifference to the Constitutional protections of houses of worship, in addition to the legislative process, by yet again expanding his "Faith-Based Initiative" through executive order, creating new faith-based offices in the Commerce Department, the Veterans Affairs Department, and the Small Business Administration. We know that with government money come government rules, regulations, and control - all of which threaten the religious autonomy of houses of worship. Government funding threatens the religious mission of faith-based institutions and may cause some to compromise their religious character and reshape their agendas to align with the government's social service priorities. By subjecting beneficiaries to religious indoctrination when obtaining government services, those seeking aid from a religious organization may be forced into personally and religiously uncomfortable situations or go without the food, shelter, or counseling on which they depend. In addition, we are deeply disturbed that faith-based organizations receiving federal dollars are being permitted to discriminate in whom they hire on the basis of religion.
Of the more than $38 million in faith-based grants which have been awarded through the Department of Health and Human Services in 2002 and 2003, there has not been a single non-Christian religious organization recipient. At a minimum, this creates the impression that in the government's eyes, not all religions are equally valid expressions of faith. Moreover, with diminished federal resources available as a result of the President's tax cuts for the wealthy, there is no guarantee that one more needy person will be helped by this initiative. The only result of this program may be the increased politicization of religion as more religious groups compete over a shrinking slice of the government pie.
The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism is the Washington office of the Union for Reform Judaism, whose more than 900 congregations across North America encompass 1.5 million Reform Jews, and the Central Conference of American Rabbis(CCAR) whose membership includes more than 1800 Reform rabbis.