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Rabbi Saperstein Testifies Before Congress in Opposition to Charitable Choice

Saperstein: "The prospect of intense competition for limited funding; the politicizing of church affairs to obtain funds; the impact on those made to feel they are outsiders when they fail to obtain the funds-this leads to the very kind of sectarian competition and divisiveness that have plagued so many other nations and which we have been spared because of the separation of church and state."

Contact: Alexis Rice or Evan Moffic (202) 387-2800

WASHINGTON, June 7, 2001 - In testimony presented today to the House Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on the Constitution, Rabbi David Saperstein, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, urged Congress to reject so-called charitable choice proposals included in President Bush's Faith Based Initiative. Saperstein, who also teaches church/state law at Georgetown University Law Center, commended President Bush for calling on government to strengthen the social action work of religious institutions, but expressed strong opposition to direct government funding of America's houses of worship. The complete text of Saperstein's statement is available on the RAC's website at www.rac.org/news/060701testimony.html .

"There is much to commend in the President's proposed Faith Based Initiative and there are myriad ways that government and the faith-based community can partner to strengthen the faith-based community's social service work and, together, to better serve our nation's poor and needy," said Saperstein.

Saperstein went on to suggest several alternatives to direct government funding of religious organizations, including, "providing technical assistance and training programs for staff of all groups; best practice sharing; targeted research on how to improve programs; reducing, or even eliminating, fees for all small organizations, including churches and synagogues, to establish separately incorporated 501(c)(3) social service arms to assist the poor; provide more and better information to the public about available programs; and encouraging charitable contributions through appropriate tax relief."

Turning to the problems with charitable choice, Saperstein began by pointing out the dangers to America's religious institutions. "With government money come government rules, regulation, audits, and monitoring, interference, and control," he stated. Furthermore, he noted, "with government money comes compromises in the religious mission of the churches, synagogues and mosques of America. When there are limits placed on religious activity in government-funded programs (as the Constitution demands), those churches committed to including them as essential to their programs must either compromise their mission to obtain the money or ignore the rules with potentially dire consequences to the beneficiaries of services and to the churches."

Minority religions, in particular, would be hurt by charitable choice, Rabbi Saperstein noted. Addressing the Members of Congress directly, he testified that Charitable choice will mean that "the Episcopal Church, the AME Zion Church, and local mosque" will be competing against each other for grants. "One gets it and the others don't and they want to know from you: Why? And, of course, politics will often determine who gets these grants and that means that it is the smaller, minority religious groups who are likely to be left out," Saperstein contended. "The prospect of intense competition for limited funding; the politicizing of church affairs to obtain funds; the impact on those made to feel they are outsiders when they fail to obtain the funds-this leads to the very kind of sectarian competition and divisiveness that have plagued so many other nations and which we have been spared because of the separation of church and state," concluded Saperstein.

Turning to the constitutional and legal issues involved with charitable choice, Saperstein pointed out that, "the Supreme Court of the United States has never upheld direct government cash support for pervasively sectarian institutions. Indeed, in cases where the High Court and other courts have upheld some type of government support for religious institutions, they have gone out of their way to distinguish it from exactly the kind of direct government subsidy of houses of worship and religious ministries and parochial schools that is entailed in charitable choice."

"The Supreme Court has noted that in houses of worship, religion is so subsumed in the entire program that it cannot be separated out, and since funding is fungible, a major program of support to any part of the institution will constitute government funding of religion, thereby violating the Establishment Clause," observed Saperstein. "Common sense says the justices are right. And because support to any part of the institution is support to all of it, such government funding violates what has been a first principle of the First Amendment."

Saperstein addressed the civil rights implications of permitting religious organizations to discriminate in employment with government funds, which current charitable choice proposals would allow. "Churches and synagogues have been (rightly!) exempted from many laws that would compromise their freedom, including the right to discriminate in whom they hire on religious grounds. Major government funding for programs with such exemptions may be constitutional but such a program can be part of a campaign to weaken civil rights and will give government sanction for dividing America along religious lines," argued Saperstein. "Government money should not be used to discriminate against protected classes of people. To grant the exemption, with anything more than incidental government funding behind it, is to turn back the clock on civil rights in this country, allowing for widespread discrimination on the basis of religious identity and practice."

Noting concerns that religious institutions are discriminated against by current government policy, Saperstein observed that, "it is not the opponents of charitable choice who concocted the idea of treating religion differently; it was the framers of the Constitution. Only religion has an Establishment Clause with all of the attendant protections and limitations that imposes. To abandon this idea in pursuit of a level playing field' is a political time bomb for religion in America."

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The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism is the Washington office of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC), whose 900 congregations across North America encompass 1.5 million Reform Jews, and the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) whose membership includes over 1700 Reform rabbis.



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