NEW YORK (Nov. 13)
Forty-three Jewish organizations affiliated with the National Community Relations Advisory Council today made public a letter to the Senate Subcommittee on Constitutional Rights, expressing “regret” that the subcommittee had cancelled scheduled hearings on the status of religious freedom.
They transmitted with the letter a 4,000-word statement, detailing “significant impairments” of the constitutional guarantee against governmental interference with religion. The statement, they said, would have been presented at the canceled hearings, had they been held.
Rabbi Abraham J. Feldman, president of the Synagogue Council of America, and Mortimer Brenner, Jewish communal leader, signed the letter as co-chairmen of the Joint Advisory Committee of the Synagogue Council and the National Community Relations Advisory Council. Represented in the Joint Advisory Committee are national synagogal and rabbinic organizations of Conservative, Orthodox and Reform Judaism and national, regional, state and local civic Jewish communal organizations including the American Jewish Congress, Jewish Labor Committee and other groups.
“We believe,” said Rabbi Feldman and Mr. Brenner in a joint statement, “that the scheduled hearings would have contributed to the clarification and the wider understanding of one of the most fundamental aspects of our democratic way of life.”
The hearings, originally scheduled for the week of October 3, were to have dealt with the religion clause of the First Amendment, barring any “law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise there of.” The hearings were canceled, according to spokesmen for the Senate subcommittee, after it became evident that they would provoke sharp controversy among religious groups.
INSTANCES OF INFRINGEMENTS OF RELIGIOUS FREEDOM CITED
The Jewish organizations list the following “four major areas in which there are, at the present time, serious infringements of the guarantee of religious freedom and the separation of church and state: “L. Involvement of the public school in religious instruction and observances; 2. Grant of tax-raised funds for religious education and use of government property by religious organizations for religious purposes; 3. Enforcement of compulsory Sunday laws against persons observing the seventh day as the Sabbath; 4. Restrictions on the erection of houses of worship and religious schools in new residential communities.”
“We believe,” the Jewish organizations declared, “that religious freedom and the separation of church and state are interdependent, indivisible and indeed unitary. Religious liberty can only be secure where church and state are completely independent of each other. Since we are convinced that Judaism, and all other faiths, can best achieve creative survival where religious liberty is secure, we are committed to the defense of the principle of strict separation of church and state.”
They affirm their conviction that “the First and Fourteenth Amendments impose upon government in our American democracy an obligation of strict separation, an obligation that precludes all material aid to religion by Congress and the states, whether accorded on a preferential or non-preferential basis.”
The principle of separation of church and state faces a “current threat,” the statement says, not because of “direct attacks upon it, ” but rather in “watering down, evasion, circumvention and compromise, while lip service is paid to the principle itself.”
Among instances of what the Jewish groups deem unconstitutional public school involvement in religion, the statement cites: The teaching of religion in the schools, either by the regular public school teachers or religious teachers supplied by church groups; Continued practice of released time, in “disregard of the limitations set down by the Supreme Court”; Devotional reading of the Bible in public school classes or assemblies; Distribution of New Testaments by the Gideons’ International through the public schools; Religious holiday programs that include Christological pageants, hymns and prayers. Observance of the Jewish holy day, Chanukah “is likewise a violation of the First Amendment.”