Jewish Groups Stand Up For Church-State Separation

In the debates over school vouchers and President George W. Bush's so-called "faith-based" initiative, there is a constant dilemma for religious organizations: stand for the founding principles of our republic or accept government money. The suffering economy has hurt the coffers of many congregations and the promise of government dollars can be difficult to resist.

The most recent example of this dilemma comes in the form of the High-Risk Non-Profit Security Enhancement Act, which yesterday passed the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee. This measure would distribute $100 million to a variety of nonprofit groups, including houses of worship.

As traditional defenders of separation of church and state, Jewish organizations have been faced with the question of whether to support this bill. Synagogues and other sectarian institutions are sure to be beneficiaries of funding if it passes. Is the additional money worth risking constitutional principles?

After carefully reflecting on these questions, both Reform and Recontructionist leaders have argued that  federal aid or below-market loan guarantees for houses of worship "seriously weakens the wall separating church and state, which is a vital protector of religious liberty for all Americans." (The Union of Reform Judaism is the largest American Jewish movement.)

"We have long taken a position that there should not be a direct government transfer of funds to houses of worship, which is at the core of this legislation as it is now," said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. "Such funding is not only something that we oppose but that the Supreme Court has never upheld," he said. Asked if this position applies even when dealing with security, Saperstein said yes, but added that there are ways in which local authorities can provide security to religious congregations without undermining the Constitution.

The prominent Anti-Defamation League has also come out against this legislation.

The coalition of organizations around this issue reflects the seriousness of constitutional principles. The current security situation in America requires a rethinking of many previous policies. However, if we allow the most fundamental principles of our democracy to be chipped away, we will be left with little to defend.