Jewish Groups Testify Against Amendment to Permit Prayer in Schools

In a dramatic display of unity on a sensitive issue, major American Jewish religious and community relations organizations joined today in a single representation opposing the prayer amendment introduced by Sen. Everett Dirksen to permit prayer in public schools.

Testifying this morning before the Senate subcommittee holding hearings on the measure, spokesmen presented a statement of the constituent organizations of the Synagogue Council of America and the National Community Relations Advisory Council. The statement denounced the Dirksen amendment as “undesirable constitutionally, and fundamentally inimical to religious interests.”

It termed the neutrality of government in matters of religion essential to religious freedom. By putting the force of government behind prayer, it asserted, the Dirksen amendment would impair that neutrality and thus change the “climate” assured by the First Amendment to the Constitution, “which has made for the unparalleled growth of religious activity and affiliation in this country. The National Community Relations Advisory Council is composed of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations; Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America; United Synagogue of America; American Jewish Committee; American Jewish Congress; B’nai B’rith — Anti-Defamation League; Jewish Labor Committee; Jewish War Veterans of the U.S.A.; National Council of Jewish Women; and 79 Jewish community relations councils in local communities across the United States.

In a plural society such as the United States, the joint testimony of the Jewish groups said, “it is not and should not be the business of government to aid religion and, if it does assume that role, then, in the very process and precedent it establishes, it does religion a harm and a disservice that will far outweigh the intended benevolence. For it will have compromised that free and unfettered exercise of religious liberty without which religious faith cannot long retain its integrity.”

FOUR JEWISH SPOKESMEN APPEAR AT SENATE HEARING

Four spokesmen appeared as a delegation representing the Jewish organizations. They were Rabbi Seymour J. Cohen, of Chicago, president of the Synagogue Council of America; Milton Goldstein, of St. Louis, vice-chairman of the Commission on Church-State and Interreligious Relationships of the National Community Relations Advisory Council; Rabbi Richard G. Hirsch, of Washington, director of the Religious Action Center of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations; and Rabbi Henry Siegman, of New York, executive vice-president of the Synagogue Council of America.

Speaking for the delegation, Rabbi Cohen stressed their commitment to a society guided by religious values. “We are thus spiritually attuned and practically oriented to the antithesis of secularism and the secular society,” he said. In opposing prayers in public schools, he emphasized, the Jewish organizations were seeking to avert the “trivialization and desecration of genuine worship” to which it would inevitably lead.

“Prayer is the singular expression of a particular faith,” he asserted. “It is an act of gross insensitivity to involve in such a deeply sectarian experience children of differing faiths.” Yet, the statement of the Jewish organizations declared, this would be the inescapable effect of the introduction of prayers into the public schools, since for children to pray in unison, some particular prayer would have to be chosen.

So-called non-sectarian prayers would be no less objectionable, the Jewish groups said. “Prayer that is not rooted in specific faith and in distinctive religious commitment is a meaningless, empty exercise. There is no greater enemy of religion than a state that promotes non-sectarian religion.”

This does not mean the banishment of God and religion from national life or any challenge to its religious foundations, but on the contrary, gives full encouragement to the broadening and deepening of genuine religious commitment, Rabbi Cohen emphasized. The framers of the Bill of Rights, he said, deliberately removed from the government “any competence in the area of religion, because they wisely understood that religious neutrality of the state is the essential condition of religious freedom in a pluralistic society.”

The language of the Dirksen amendment, which would permit “voluntary participation” in prayer in public schools, is ambiguous and misleading, the testimony of the Jewish groups warned. Senator Dirksen’s own statement accompanying introduction of the proposal shows “clearly,” they asserted, that “he intends it to permit joint recitation of prayers by children in the classroom and the presentation of plainly sectarian celebrations of Christmas and other religious holidays.”

The Rev. C. Stanley Lowell, associate director of “Protestants and Other Americans United,” a group defending separation of church from state, said the proposed amendment “deeply injects the Government into the business of religion.”

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