Good afternoon. I am Rabbi David Saperstein, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and co-chair of the Coalition to Preserve Religious Liberty. I am here today, representing 1.5 million Reform Jews and over 1,700 Reform rabbis throughout North America, as a proud member of this broad-based coalition to oppose Representative Istook's so-called "Religious Freedom Amendment."
Last session, the outstanding work of this coalition and all of its varied members — from the American Association of University Women to the Episcopal Church, from Soka Gokkai International-USA to Hadassah — combined with the courageous efforts of members of Congress on both sides of the aisle, including the proud Texan, Chet Edwards, who is here with us again today and others like Representative Steve Horn of California, defeated the Istook amendment.
The amendment of which I speak, that Representative Istook and the House leadership will introduce in just a few minutes, is unnecessary, divisive, and disingenuous. More than that, while it purports to protect the religious rights of all Americans, it would, in fact, alarmingly reduce the religious liberty we now possess.
The Istook amendment is unnecessary because we already have a religious freedom amendment — it is called the First Amendment, and it has fostered a nation of diverse and vibrant religious traditions, where a powerful and inspirational variety of religions and credos and origins has been able to grow and to prosper. The Istook amendment is divisive because it sows the seeds of combat between faiths for scarce government funds and invites competition between faiths in our nation's public schools.
The Istook amendment is disingenuous because so many of the wrongs the sponsors claim to be righting could be addressed with proper application of the current law. The recent case in Mississippi illustrates my point. What happened? A government agency, in this case a local school board, passed a rule that prevented a student from exercising his religious liberty — in this case wearing the Jewish Star of David. Public outcry, along with a clarification to the school board of what the law says, led the Board to change its decision. The student's religious liberty was protected by the Constitution, without any changes or additions to the First Amendment. The solution was not to amend our Constitution; the solution was to educate the School Board. And it worked.
The First Amendment is the most powerful promoter of religion in America. It is precisely because of, and not in spite of, the separation of church and state that religion has flourished in the United States like nowhere else. The Istook amendment would actually reduce religious freedom by lowering the wall of separation of church and state, allowing the long arm of the government to reach into our churches synagogues, and mosques across the nation. The cause of religious freedom, our First Freedom, is not advanced by blurring the roles of government and religion.
As you can see by the breadth of this coalition, no one can say that this is a debate between those who care about religion on the one hand, and those who do not on the other. We who are standing here today care deeply about religion — we are here because we care so deeply — and we are here to say that, working together with virtually the entire mainstream of America's religious community, we will make defeating this amendment our foremost priority.