Nation's Largest Jewish Organization Opposes "Sense of the House" Resolution on School-Sponsored Prayer at Public School Athletic Events
Saperstein and Pelavin: "Notwithstanding the view of the Resolution's sponsors, there is not one Constitution for football players and another for all other students."
Contact: Jeff Mandell, (202) 387-2800
WASHINGTON, November 2 — In anticipation of an afternoon House vote on H. Con. Res. 199, which would express the Sense of the House of Representatives to allow organized prayer at public school football games and other athletic events, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism Director, Rabbi David Saperstein, and Associate Director, Mark J. Pelavin, sent a letter to every member of the House expressing the Reform Movement of Judaism's strong opposition to H. Con. Res. 199.
"Of course a quarterback can pray that his pass will be completed, or a field goal kicker that his aim is true. Such individual, voluntary prayer is different not in degree but in kind from officially selected and sanctioned prayers read over a loudspeaker on behalf of all students," Saperstein and Pelavin wrote. The Reform Movement has demonstrated unflagging support for the Constitutional separation of church and state across the years. It is in that Constitutional tradition that the Religious Action Center calls for the defeat of H. Con. Res. 199. But it is also in a tradition of remembrance. As Saperstein and Pelavin explain, "We remember the days when Jewish students were made to feel like outcasts in their own schools, when they had to choose between a majority-chosen prayer and ostracization by their fellow students."
The complete text of Saperstein and Pelavin's letter follows:
November 2, 1999 - By Fax
On behalf of the 875 congregations of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, whose membership includes 1.5 million Reform Jews across North America, and the 1,700 rabbis of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, we urge you to oppose H. Con. Res. 199, which seeks to express the Sense of Congress that "prayers and invocations at public schools sporting events contribute to the moral foundation of our nation" and urges "the Supreme Court to uphold their constitutionality." We understand that H.Con. Res. 199 will be considered on the House floor as soon as this afternoon.
Although non-binding, this divisive resolution seeks to effectively amend the Constitution by permitting school-sponsored prayer at official school events. H.Con. Res. 199 offends the First Amendment. It offends millions of Americans.
Public school athletic events are school-sponsored activities, which usually take place at stadiums and gymnasiums owned, equipped and operated by school systems. The Constitutional bars the State (including public schools) from promoting or endorsing religion, a prohibition that includes official or school-sponsored prayer. Even at sporting events. Notwithstanding the view of the Resolution's sponsors, there is not one Constitution for football players and another for all other students.
As members of a religious minority, we know all too well the danger of state sponsored prayer. We remember the days when Jewish students were made to feel like outcasts in their own schools, when they had to choose between a majority-chosen prayer and ostracization by their fellow students. As Justice Sandra Day O'Conner has written:
[State] [e]ndoresment [of religion] sends a message to non-adherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an approving message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community. Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. 668, 688 (1984) (J. O'Conner concurring).
Finally, we want to be clear what H.Con. Res. 199 is not about. No one, least of all us is arguing that students do not have the right to pray in public schools. It is the role of the government in organizing and conducting prayer that is impermissible. Private voluntary prayer is not only permissible, it is constitutionally protected. Of course a quarterback can pray that his pass will be completed, or a field goal kicker that his aim is true. Such individual, voluntary prayer is different not in degree but in kind from officially selected and sanctioned prayers read over a loudspeaker on behalf of all students.
We urge you to vote against H.Con. Res. 199, and to stand in support of true religious liberty.
Rabbi David Saperstein
Director and Counsel
Mark J. Pelavin
The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism is the Washington office of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, representing 1.5 million Reform Jews and 1,800 Reform rabbis in 875 congregations throughout North America.