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Democracy in Action: The Religion Clauses and the Election

Democracy in Action: The Religion Clauses and the Election

Elections are one of the most fundamental elements of our democracy, a moment for citizens to participate in choosing our leaders and shaping the next phase of work on the key social justice issues of today. We are thus reminded of one of the core American values – one of our “First Freedoms” – the separation of church and state.

A key example of this vision of the United States is in Article VI of the Constitution, which states, “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” In shaping a new governmental system – a system predicated on engaged citizens to participate, either as voters or as representatives, in the new Congress – the Founders ensured that no one could be barred from holding office for religious reasons. An important expression of the importance that every citizen, regardless of religion, ought to be able to participate in the governance of the United States.

As an extension of the values encapsulated by both the separation of church and state and religious freedom was the Johnson Amendment, adopted in 1954. This provision bars non-profits, including houses of worship, from engaging in partisan politicking. Clergy have a right – and an obligation – to speak about the moral and political issues of the day, but houses of worship may not endorse or oppose candidates for public office and use tax-exempt donations to contribute to partisan political campaigns. This provision has served as a valuable safeguard for the integrity of both religious institutions and the political process, and helps religious institutions maintain their “prophetic voice.”

This network of laws and principles about the role of religion in public life and the functioning of our democracy enhance religious freedom through church-state separation, and vice-versa. As stated in a 1965 URJ resolution, “the principle of separation of church and state is best for both church and state and is indispensable for the preservation of that spirit of religious liberty which is a unique blessing of American democracy.”

We have created a “Dos and Don’ts” Guide for congregations to help you navigate non-profit status during the election season. As Reform Jews and American citizens, we have an obligation to participate in elections so as to ensure that our country's policies at the local, state and national levels reflect our commitment to             social justice. Every vote counts and plays a defining role in setting policy agendas. It is our civic duty to register promptly, educate ourselves about the critical issues and vote!



Sarah Greenberg is the Assistant Legislative Director at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, where she was an Eisendrath Legislative Assistant in 2013-2014. Sarah graduated in 2013 from Cornell University, and is originally from New York City.

Sarah Greenberg

Published: 6/22/2016