Nation's Largest Jewish Organization Reacts to Vice-President Gore's Remarks on the Role of Faith-Based Organizations
Pelavin: Gore's plan is "an alarming alteration of the careful balance between church and state which has helped define our great nation and helped guarantee that religion can flourish free of government interference or control."
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Contact: Brian Leiken, 202-387-2800
WASHINGTON, MAY 25, 1999—Responding to a major address by Vice-President Al Gore yesterday on the role of faith-based organizations, Mark J. Pelavin, Associate Director of the Religious Acton Center of Reform Judaism, today called Gore's policy proposal "an alarming alteration of the careful balance between church and state which has helped define our great nation and helped guarantee that religion can flourish free of government interference or control."
Pelavin, who noted that "Al Gore has long been a champion of religious liberty, and of the separation of church and state," called Gore's speech "puzzling" and "troubling." Responding to the Vice-President's call for a "new partnership" between government and religious institutions, Pelavin noted that "Religion has flourished in America not despite the respectful distance between government and religion, but because of it." The full text of Mr. Pelavin's statement follows:
Al Gore has long been a champion of religious liberty, and of the separation of church and state. At times when few Southern politicians were willing to stand up for the Constitution, Gore consistently supported church/state separation. That makes his announcement yesterday, calling for "New Partnership" between government and religion and, specifically, endorsing and calling for the expansion of "charitable choice," so puzzling, and so troubling.
His proposal raises numerous concerns to those committed to the indispensability of church-state separation to religious freedom. The proposal raises the prospect of:
- direct government funding of churches, synagogues, mosques and other "pervasively sectarian" religious institutions (something the Supreme Court has consistently cautioned against);
- government funding for overtly religious/ritual activities that are part of many such programs;
- government funds being used for some proselytization activity (the Vice-President's speech is ambiguous on this crucial point), raising the prospect of taxpayers' money being used to pay for religious activities and proselytization to which they may profoundly object—something the Establishment Clause was specifically erected to avoid;
- divisive competition between America's 2,000 religious denominations and faith groups for government funding (competition which is harmful in itself, and is exacerbated by the fact that minority religions would, inevitably, lose out); and
- setting a precedent for direct funding of other pervasively sectarian institutions, including funding of parochial schools either directly or through vouchers.
There is much to commend in the Vice-President's remarks before the Atlanta Salvation Army. He spoke eloquently about the importance of maintaining separation between church and state, noting that "the separation of church and state has been good for all connected—good for religion, good for democracy, and good for those who choose not to worship at all." And his own political and personal history reflects someone for whom faith is not just a political buzzword.
But, the Vice-President makes exactly the wrong connection between the first half of his speech - which eloquently discusses the importance of religion in the lives of most Americans, and in our public life - and the policy recommendation he proposes in the second half. He notes, rightly, that "America is most religious country on earth," and then goes on to express support for an alarming alteration of the careful balance between church and state which has helped define our great nation and helped guarantee that religion can flourish free of government interference or control.
Religion has flourished in America not despite the respectful distance between government and religion, but because of it. We are a diverse and devout nation, but one which protects the rights of non-believers as well as believers. We have cherished, and fought for, the right of religious institutions to function free from the heavy hand of government.
The Vice-President hails the achievements of faith-based organizations, and notes how they have often been more effective than traditional government programs. Yet in the next breath, he proposes an expansion of "charitable choice," a plan which would begin to diminish the distinctiveness of faith-based programs. He appropriately calls for numerous safeguards on charitable choice programs, but such safeguards, which are only right if government funds are involved, may well undermine the religious mission of the institutions.
We have great respect for the Vice-President, and especially for the work he has done bringing religious voices into the public policy arena. The work of the National Religious Partnership on Environment, which he cited in his remarks, is a powerful example of the role religious groups can, and do, play in key policy areas. And we note that the Vice-President's proposal does contain safeguards to protect against some of the most troubling ramifications of charitable choice.
It is clear that the proposal is still in the formative stage and we urge the Vice-President to utilize forms of government support that do not violate the Constitution and our historic commitment to the separation of church and state. We hope that as this important discussion continues to evolve, he will focus as much on the significant dangers of this approach as on its questionable benefits.
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.