Statement of Mark J. Pelavin, Associate Director, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism Joining Civil Rights and Congressional Leaders Against Faith Based Legislation
July 17, 2001
On behalf of the more than 900 congregations of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, and the 1,800 Rabbis of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, which encompass 1.5 million Reform Jews across North America, I am proud to stand today with Congressional Black Caucus Chair Representative Edie Bernice Johnson, Representatives Conyers, Lewis, Scott, Nadler and these distinguished leaders of America's religious community and to say, with them, that the "charitable choice" legislation the House will consider tomorrow is a very real danger to fundamental American values.
Among those fundamental values, H.R. 7 threatens our "First Freedom," religious liberty. For to have true religious liberty, we must allow religion and religious institutions to function free from the all-too-often heavy hand of government. Ignoring over 200 years of history, and directly attacking the wall of separation between church and state which has allowed religion to flourish in America with a diversity and vitality unmatched anywhere in the world, The Watts/Hall bill would dramatically increase direct government funding for sectarian religious organizations. Since the bill does not include any new funding to address pressing social needs not a nickel funding for sectarian institutions would come at the expense of other social service organizations, by redirecting existing government social service funding to religious groups who can proselytize, discriminate in hiring, and force beneficiaries to participate in religious activity. H.R. 7 explicitly permits religious groups to use government money to fund jobs closed to divorced people, gays, single mothers, Jews, Catholics, and others.
It is important to note that although it is true that Congress has passed "charitable choice" legislation previously, the version the House will consider tomorrow is more troubling, more offensive, and more divisive than any earlier version. In last week's "mark up," for example, the "secular alternative" for necessary social services as proposed by President Bush was stripped from the bill, and beneficiaries may have no alternative to receiving services from a pervasively sectarian organization that wishes to convert them. This could create a hardship for those seeking aid, and will put the disadvantaged in an impossible position -- they may be asked to submit to religious coercion or face going without food, shelter or other necessary services to which they are legally entitled.
This fundamental disagreement over the role of government in religious activity is not between religious people and those who are against religion. Or even between those who believe that religious organizations have a vital role to play in helping to meet human needs and those who see no such role. But this bill does almost nothing to encourage private charitable giving, preferring increased competition for scarce resources. We, along with many other religious groups, opposed the recent tax cut precisely because we believe it will leave insufficient funds for addressing human needs. We were hopeful, for example, that allowing tax deductions for charitable contributions made by those who do not itemize their tax deductions would be a viable alternative to the direct government funding of pervasively sectarian organizations, by encouraging increased personal giving. Yet the deduction included in this bill will only give non-itemizers a tax break of $3.75, rising to $15 in 2009, when the maximum deduction will be $100 -- a fraction of what the average non-itemizer already gives. H.R. 7 and the faith-based initiative show an unwillingness to commit real money for solving real problems. For those of us committed to speak for the poor among us for the widow, the orphan and the stranger we must ask how can our government prioritize the repeal of the estate tax on the wealthiest Americans, an act that will hurt charitable giving, and then say there is no money left over to make a meaningful non-itemizer deduction?
Finally, as Members of the House vote tomorrow, I hope they will ask themselves if they agree with Thomas Jefferson who said: "[T]o compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves, is sinful and tyrannical" or if they support federally-funded proselytization. For the American Jewish community, and for all minority communities, the danger is quite real. Teen Challenge International, a fundamentalist Christian substance-abuse program, was held up before Congress as a model of faith-based social services. Yet the Executive Director of this "model" program boasted to Congress that he only hires Christians, and that some Jews who finish his Teen Challenge program become "completed Jews" that is, they are proselytized and convert to Christianity.
We urge the House to stand with Jefferson, to protect religious liberty, and to reject this dangerous proposal.
The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaismis 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.