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Reform Jewish Movement: Supreme Court Voucher Decision Endangers Public Schools

Saperstein: The legal battles over the separation of church and state and the constitutionality of voucher programs will continue to be fought in the
years to come, but the battle for our public schools begins anew today.

Contact: Lauren Schumer or Alana Suskin (202) 387-2800

WASHINGTON, June 27, 2002 - Rabbi David Saperstein, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, today released the following statement concerning the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Simmons-Harris v. Zelman finding school vouchers constitutional. The full text of the statement follows:

"In what may be the most devastating decision about public schools and religious liberty in decades, the U.S. Supreme Court today overturned lower court decisions finding school voucher programs unconstitutional. The legal battles over the separation of church and state and the constitutionality of voucher programs will continue to be fought in the years to come, but the battle for our public schools begins anew today.

"Sadly, today's decision undermines the American traditions of democracy and religious liberty that have made our nation unique. In upholding the constitutionality of the Cleveland voucher program, the Court abandoned the judiciary's traditional interpretation of the First Amendment's Establishment Clause as meaning that the government will not fund parochial education.

"In December 2000, the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down Cleveland's voucher program, stating that 'there is no neutral aid when that aid principally flows to religious institutions.' In overturning both U.S. District and Circuit Court decisions, the Supreme Court upheld a program that excessively entangles government in religion and benefits only a select few while denying desperately needed education funding from the multitudes and harming the single most unifying factor in our society: public education.

"As with every immigrant group - indeed, as with the overwhelming majority of American students - American Jews have benefited enormously from the public school system of this nation. It has integrated immigrants into American society, instilled a sense of American identity and forged a common history and collection of experiences for the American people. As members of a religious minority, we strive to protect our religious liberty through effective prohibitions on the establishment of religion. The Reform Jewish Movement has a long-standing tradition of supporting the maintenance and enhancement of the nation's public schools and opposing schemes to divert resources from them or to fund religious schools.

"While we understand, and share, the frustration of those who seek to address the problems of our nation's public education system, we must underscore that vouchers will not fix anything. In its 5-4 decision, the Court undermined our nation's responsibility to the vast majority of America's schoolchildren in favor of the small minority whom the government will pay to send to private schools. American public schools - the schools that over 85 percent of American children attend - need adequate supplies, building repairs, up-to-date textbooks and technology, and well-trained, well-paid teachers. We must work to improve our public school system, not divert money from it. We pledge to continue to focus our energies and resources to improve public education to benefit all Americans.

"As Rabbi Eric Yoffie, President of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, noted in his address to the UAHC Biennial Convention last December, 'public education is the last bastion of true democracy.' Rabbi Yoffie added that should Court uphold the constitutionality of vouchers, 'voucher programs will be presented to state legislatures throughout the country. I propose to this Biennial Assembly that we make known here and now our opposition to school vouchers and proclaim our intention to fight them. … I urge that we proclaim what all of us know and some of us have forgotten: that the First Amendment is the cornerstone of our security and freedom, and we will never take its liberties for granted.'"

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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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