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Jewish World Review June 22, 2001 / 1 Tamuz, 5761

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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Examining the high price of separation of religion and state at work and at school -- DURING a particularly contentious debate during the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Benjamin Franklin suggested starting the next day's deliberations with a prayer. But Alexander Hamilton was opposed to the idea. He said that such a prayer would be a public confession that the otherwise secret deliberations were deadlocked. The patron saint of American conservatism also added that he saw no necessity for the convention to seek "foreign aid."

Hamilton would, before his life was cut tragically short by Aaron Burr's bullet in 1804, become far more respectful of religion. In response to the atheism that he felt was being promoted by uncritical admirers of the bloody French Revolution, he would even propose the founding of a "Christian Constitutional Society." Thus, even within the life of the most conservative of the republic's founders, there is a body of contradictory evidence as to the place of religion in American public life.

And it is a debate that has not ceased since then.

Among the latest shots fired in that battle have been those aimed at John Ashcroft, the attorney general of the United States. Ashcroft became the favorite whipping boy of liberals during his confirmation hearings because of his profession of evangelical Christianity and his views on abortion. But he has found himself in the cross hairs once again for an interesting reason: holding Bible-study sessions in his office. For some liberals, the most offensive thing he has done during his brief tenure in office is having the effrontery to pray on government property.

Apparently, the attorney general welcomes employees into his office, where they study verses from the Hebrew and Christian bibles, recite psalms and offer prayers. The sessions, which began during Ashcroft's time in the U.S. Senate, include Jews as well as non-Jews. One Orthodox Jewish aide to Ashcroft who worked for him in the Senate (and now in the Justice Department) has said that there is no religious coercion and that, in fact, the aide has been able to offer the study group the insight of Rashi, the medieval rabbinic commentator.

Though the sessions take place before the work day begins, liberals like Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, are worried about Ashcroft's davening, praying. Saperstein told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency last month that even "public awareness" of Ashcroft's Bible-study group will be perceived as a "government endorsement of religion."

I suspect that the vast majority of Americans, including many liberals, do not share Saperstein's fears. The idea that a man who exercises the almost unfettered might of the attorney general's office actually recognizes a higher power than his own is probably comforting to most of us. The fact that both the Senate and the House of Representatives have paid chaplains who open each day's official session with prayer also undercuts the notion that somehow Ashcroft's devotions are a threat to the separation of religion and state. And one can only imagine the justified howls of protest that would come from Jewish groups if a Talmud-study group led by Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., were to be similarly questioned.

But the mini-contretemps over Ashcroft's prayers is just one skirmish in an ongoing fight over just how public prayer in this country can be. The drive to ensure that no one prays on public property received another blow last week when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that religious groups cannot be denied access to public facilities that are open to other groups.

In that case, the court ruled that the Good News Club, an evangelical Christian organization, should be allowed to use a room in an upstate New York school building on the same basis as other groups that routinely use the facility for their meetings. The majority ruled 6-3 that to exclude the group because of the religious nature of the club, while simultaneously allowing the same privilege to a host of other organizations, was an abridgement of the freedom of speech.

As Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in the majority decision: "The danger that children would misperceive the endorsement of religion" was no greater "than they would perceive a hostility towards the religious viewpoint if the club were excluded from the public forum."

Thomas was right. Religious speech should not be granted protection not afforded other kinds of speech, nor should it be imposed on children or anyone else. But neither should religion be discriminated against.

The circumstances of the case, which focused on voluntary attendance at a club meeting held after regular school hours, clearly showed that the establishment of religion was not in question. Nor is the Good News Club case similar to another court ruling last year, which prohibited a scheme in a Texas district that created a student election to establish a sectarian prayer to be said before school football games. In that case, the result was an infringement of the right of minorities to participate in school activities. The current case offered no such harm to any student.

Opponents of the court decision also see the right granted to the Good News Club as aiding efforts to shove the majority population's religious beliefs down the throats of the minority. But there is a real difference between this case, which involves voluntary groups during nonschool hours, and compulsory sectarian prayer to start the school day, which the court was right to strike down decades ago.

We should also remember that all sorts of groups -- from environmentalists to gay-straight alliances -- are currently allowed after-hours access to many public schools. As a civil libertarian, I see nothing wrong with this. And I wonder whether opponents of last week's court decision at the American Civil Liberties Union, and elsewhere on the left, would allow those groups to be discriminated against in the same manner as the Good News Club.

Many Jewish parents are worried about their children getting pushed into an after-school meeting, where they will be influenced by Christian teachings. But these parents need to be more concerned about their own families than what goes on at the Good News Club. All parents need to monitor their kids' after-school activities more closely. Even more importantly, Jewish parents should make sure that their children are sufficiently educated in their own heritage so as to render them invulnerable to the siren call of other faiths.

Moreover, do we really think it is good for the country to create a situation where religious speech is banned in the public square? Too many of us seem to think that American Jews will only be safe if the more than 90 percent of the population that is Christian checks their faith and religious values at the door when it comes to public life. But as even a liberal like Rabbi Saperstein said last year during the presidential campaign, there would be nothing wrong with the Christian messiah being the favorite philosopher of George W. Bush.

So long as coercion or government establishment of religion is absent, prayer and public discussion of religious values is good for the American body politic. We may not all share the faith of John Ashcroft or the Good News Club, but protecting the free exercise of religion is just as sacred a constitutional task as prohibiting its establishment.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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© 2000, Jonathan Tobin