Jewish Groups Say Defeat of School Prayer Amendment is a Victory for Religious Freedom

Major Jewish organizations hailed today the rejection by the Senate yesterday of a proposed constitutional amendment to permit prayer in the public schools, agreeing generally the vote was a victory for religious freedom.

While the Republican-controlled Senate cast a majority for the proposal, for which President Reagan had lobbied vigorously, the vote fell short of the needed two-thirds majority required in each house as a first step for a constitutional amendment. The vote was 56 to 44,11 short of the two-thirds of the 100 Senators needed for approval. Sen. Lowell Weicker (R. Conn.) led the fight against Senate approval.

Howard Friedman, American Jewish Committee president, said the American people now had the time to “think more deeply” about the “dangers” of changing the First Amendment guarantee of protection of religious liberty.

Declaring that the Committee firmly opposed any constitutional amendment to allow school prayer as a “divisive act” which could injure the rights of religious minorities and others, Friedman said the human rights agency remained ready to join with others to help “construct a consensus around the teaching of such core American values as honesty, compassion, patriotism, reverence and respect for the rights, freedom and feelings of others.”

U.S SAVED FROM DIVISIVENESS

Gerald Kraft, president of B’nai B’rith International, said the vote saved the United States from the divisiveness that would permeate the classroom if the students were subjected to daily decisions about differing versions of prayers.

Reiterating earlier arguments against the proposed amendment, Kraft said that if a prayer “has real content, it is bound to either offend or to put pressure on someone. If it has no real content, then it makes a mockery of religion and ultimately encourages spiritual shallowness.”

He lauded the action of the Senators “who chose to maintain the constitution as the brilliant unencumbered document that has allowed American pluralism and democracy to endure.”

VICTORY FOR CHURCH-STATE SEPARATION PRINCIPLE

Rabbi Mordecai Waxman, president of the Synagogue Council of America, representing the rabbinical and congregational agencies of Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Judaism, said the defeat of the prayer amendment “is a victory for the principal of the separation of church and state which has served both religious and non-religious people so well.”

He said the United States was a country with a strong religious commitment precisely because “minorities have been free to follow their religious bents and because majorities have been circumspect about the rights of others.”

Asserting that the function of the public schools is to communicate general knowledge, Waxman declared that “prayer is not a proper function of the public schools and neither the public schools nor children should be used as vehicles by religious bodies to advance their viewpoints.”

Howard Squadron, president of the American Jewish Congress, said the vote in the Senate was “a welcome reaffirmation” of the “continuing vitality” of the principle of church-state separation, as well as “a recognition of the critical importance of preserving religious pluralism.”

He declared that the opposition to the proposal by so many religious groups “demonstrates that, far from representing hostility to religion, the prohibition against joining religion and state is indispensable to the integrity of religious beliefs.”

“This vote should put an end to ill-conceived and ill-advised efforts to upset those historic arrangements which have served our pluralistic society so well,” he said.

REAFFIRMATION OF FOUNDER’S IDEAL

Seymour Reich, chairman of the civil rights committee of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, called the vote “the Senate’s reaffirmation of the Founding Fathers’ ideal that government must be kept separate from religion.”

He said the vote “does not take prayer out of the schools — individual students always had, and still have, the right to pray privately, in whatever manner or locale they choose. The Senate’s action leaves intact 20 years of Supreme Court precedent banning official school prayer activities.”

Julius Berman, president of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, sent a telegram to Weicker, declaring that the Orthodox Union “strongly” supported the Senator’s efforts “to preserve the integrity of the United States Constitution by opposing” the proposed amendment.

Rabbi Alexander Schindler, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, said the Senate “acted wisely” in rejecting the amendment. “In doing so, it has reaffirmed the historic constitutional principle of separation of church and state.” He added that “religious liberty and religion itself will continue to flourish in America so long as this wise enactment of our Founding Fathers remains inviolate.”

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