‘erosion’ of Support in the Jewish Community for Church-state Separation Cited by Law Professor
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‘erosion’ of Support in the Jewish Community for Church-state Separation Cited by Law Professor

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There has been an “erosion” of support in the Jewish community for the constitutional separation of church and state which is “not in the interests” of American Jews, Louis Henkin, university professor of law and diplomacy at Columbia University, charged here today.

But Edward Zelinsky, as associate professor at Yeshiva University’s Cardozo Law School, said that the last 30 years has demonstrated that the separation of church and state is not enough to protect Jewish rights and may even hinder them.

Both participated with Father Robert Drinan, a professor at Georgetown University’s Law Center, in a discussion on “Is the separation between church and state in the United States an obsolete concept?” as part of the biennial convention of B’ nai B’rith International at the Sheraton Washington Hotel.

Henkin said that the erosion of support in the Jewish community was caused by Jews considering themselves as part of a “trinity of religion” along with Protestants and Catholics. He said as a coalition, Jews were part of the majority and didn’t need protection. But as Christian groups began to assert their beliefs more openly, “Jews now find that they need the separation of church and state guarantee to protect their rights,” Henkin asserted.


He said that the Supreme Court decision last March permitting a creche in a town square in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, may be the turning point on this issue. Henkin added that the constitutional guarantee does not only protect Jews and other minority religious groups but also non-believers.

Zelinsky argued that the separation of church and state was not adequate protection any longer since, as the state provides more services it may result in not protecting Jews and other minorities but in discrimination against them. As an example, he noted that a Connecticut court ruled unconstitutional, on separation of church-state grounds, a state law which allowed a Christian Sabbath observer to refuse to work on Sunday.


The church-state issue has been one of the major issues before the some 1,000 persons attending the convention. It has received heightened interest because of President Reagan’s speech at a prayer breakfast during the Republican national convention in which he said religion and politics were linked.

A discussion on religion and politics was held Monday at the convention, and both President Reagan and Vice President Walter Mondale who are scheduled to address B’nai B’rith tomorrow are expected to deal with the subject.

Drinan, a former Democratic Congressman from Massachusetts and former president of Americans for Democratic Action, strongly condemned Reagan today for seeking to form a coalition of some 51 million Catholics and 10 to 15 million evangelicals in the U.S. by promising them the adoption of a tuition tax credit if he is re-elected. Drinan also rejected Reagan’s contention at the prayer breakfast that the U.S. had become a secular society opposed to religion. He said that over the last decades courts have upheld many benefits and exemptions for religious groups.

The Jesuit priest also said that he rejects Reagan’s other contention that those who oppose the school prayer amendment are “intolerant of religion”. “The Administration believes that if you don’t agree with the fundamentalists that we ought to have tuition tax credits and re-criminalize abortion and reinstate prayer in the public schools, that you are intolerant of religion,” Drinan said. “I am not intolerant of religion because I think the Rev. Falwell is fundamentally wrong on three or four major things.”

Noting that the Administration has become “defensive” on the issue because of the criticism Reagan has received for his remarks since the Republican national convention, Drinan urged Jews and others to be “very vigilant” during the next few weeks until the Administration “backtracks” on this issue.


Reagan’s remarks on religion were also criticized at the B’nai B’rith convention Monday during the discussion on religion and politics. Barry Rubin, a Mideast specialist at Georgetown University’s Center for Strategic Studies, said that Reagan’s argument that religion and politics are “necessarily related” was “almost word for word the kind of statements that the Ayatollah Khomeini has made in Iran.”

Rabbi David Saperstein, Washington representative of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, wamed that “we are seeing people trying to impose their religious beliefs on America. “Both Saperstein and Eugene Fisher, head of Catholic-Jewish relations for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, said religious groups can speak out on public issues. But Fisher warned, “There’s a tremendous danger when any religious group decides only its way is God’s way.”

Drinan said today that the Catholic bishops do not want Catholics to vote on a single issue. He said the many Catholics in Congress who voted against the efforts to make abortion illegal were not violating their religious principles.


Both Henkin and Drinan opposed the school prayer amendment. But Henkin urged Jews and others not to rely on the court to protect their rights but to speak up when they see it violated in their own communities.

Drinan and Henkin were also opposed to the effort to have a moment of silence instead of school prayer. Drinan noted that many states have adopted the moment of silence and some have allowed children to be excused from it, which he said demonstrates that it is a subterfuge for prayer.

Henkin noted that the same people who want school prayer support the moment of silence, which he said shows it is just another way of having prayer. He also opposed the new law allowing equal access to religious groups in high schools if other groups are allowed as part of extra-curricula activities. He said a line has to be drawn, and there is “a difference between a chess club and a religious club. We ought not to use public funds for religious purposes in any guise.”

But Zelinsky said he favors equal access. He said that if a school didn’t want to favor religious clubs it could drop all extra-curricular activities or it could refuse all federal funds. But Henkin noted that most of the problems in school on the religious issue come not from the federal government but from state and local governments.

Henkin also expressed fear about the proposal for a constitutional convention to adopt an amendment to the Constitution requiring a federal balanced budget. He said that “maybe you might get a runaway convention that would seek to rewrite the entire Constitution.”


The B’nai B’rith convention is scheduled to adop a resolution opposing “all forms of organized prayer, religious exercise or bible classes in public, primary and secondary schools, including ‘moments of silence’ or ‘meditation’ “; opposes the equal access law and urges “B’nai B’rith members to vigorously oppose inclusion of nativity scenes with public holiday displays on public policy grounds and to oppose on legal grounds any inclusion of a nativity scene or other religious symbol which goes beyond the displays specifically permitted by the recent ‘creche case’ “; and to urge “legal action to cut back and limit the effects of that unfortunate decision.”

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