Vice President Al Gore tried to reassure American Jews on the question of school prayer last week, but he was less than successful.
In a speech before some 2,600 delegates at the General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations last Friday, Gore scored marks for defending the separation of church and state as neither a Democratic nor a Republican idea, “but an American idea” and for emphasizing the Clinton administration’s opposition to “coerced” prayer in public school.
He defended religious liberty and said that both he and President Clinton are adamantly opposed to allowing the government to take over the responsibility of “telling others how to pray.”
But the vice president never mentioned a word about voluntary prayer or a moment of silence in public school, concepts that most Jews also reject as a violation of the separation between church and state and a threat to their security.
At a news conference with representatives from the Jewish media following his speech, Gore was more specific, strongly hinting that the president would, in fact, support moment-of-silence legislation.
As governor of Arkansas in 1985, Clinton helped write legislation allowing silent meditation at the beginning of the school day.
Clinton “wants to be respectful of those who feel that there might be some way legislatively to accommodate people who seek only an opportunity on their own initiative to silently participate in their religious tradition,” the vice president said.
Gore’s remarks here came just days after Clinton shocked many Jewish supporters by suggesting he would consider supporting a constitutional amendment to allow voluntary school prayer. Despite his history of support for voluntary school prayer, this marked the first time as president that he seriously discussed a constitutional amendment.
The president’s comments, made during a news conference in Jakarta, Indonesia, were interpreted as a peace offering to the newly elected Republican leadership in Congress.
U.S. Rep. Newt Gingrich, (R-Ga.), who is slated to be the next speaker of the House, said recently that he intends to bring a constitutional amendment on school prayer to the floor of the Congress by July 4.
Clinton’s remarks unleashed an avalanche of protest from Jewish organizations and individuals. While the issue was not officially on the agenda of the G.A. here, it became an important topic as Jewish organizational officials met in emergency sessions to devise strategies for dealings with the subject. The National Jewish Democratic Council, a staunchly pro-administration group, was one of the first to fire its salvo at the White House.
In a Nov. 16 letter to the president, NJDC Chair Monte Friedkin, a major financial backer of the president, and the group’s policy committee chair, Howard Squadron, took the president to task for his comments.
NJDC “is in the mainstream of American Jewry in unambiguously opposing organized school prayer in any form,” the letter said.
The NJDC leaders warned that Jewish voters, the majority of whom vote consistently Democratic, might turn their back on the party over such issues.
Breaching the wall of separation between church and state through a constitutional amendment “could gravely undermine the decades of trust built between American Jews and the Democratic Party,” the letter said.
The next day, White House aides tried to clarify the president’s remarks by saying he really meant that he would consider only a moment of silence.
At the G.A., delegate Edith Everett of Manhattan mounted an impromptu letter- writing campaign to the president. “This is very scary stuff,” Everett said. “If this is what our president – whom we have been relying on to do the right thing – is going to use as a signal to the Republicans that he’s going to play ball, that makes me sick.”
By the end of the conference, Everett said she had attained her goal of collecting 100 letters to the president expressing opposition to school prayer.
There is no doubt the message – from Jewish groups as well as other religious and civil rights organizations – reached the White House.
The president “has gotten a ton of mail,” according to an official close to the Jewish community traveling with the vice president.
“He understands the depth of concern” in the Jewish community, the official added.
In addition to sending letters, a few Jewish organizational professionals spent the two days between Clinton’s reported remarks and Gore’s speech here in constant contact with the White House, hoping to persuade the vice president to assuage their concerns through his speech.
The vice president delivered an entertaining and impassioned speech, replete with references to the Torah portion of the week and jokes poking fun at himself. He was warmly received by the crowd, especially when he spoke of the administration’s opposition to right-wing conservatism and ongoing support for the Middle East peace process.
But though much of his speech focused on the importance of religious liberty and the separation of church and state, many of those who were listening closely were disappointed by what he left out.
“It’s not what I was looking for,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center. He said he was particularly disappointed that the vice president did not specifically express opposition to a constitutional amendment on school prayer.
Gore “didn’t go far enough,” agreed Diana Aviv, Washington director of the Council of Jewish Federations.
Reflecting widespread dissatisfaction and continuing unease over the issue, CJF’s board of delegates moved quickly and spontaneously to amend its prepared resolution endorsing the separation of church and state and opposing school prayer.
The amendment, passed unanimously by more than 100 of the CJF communities attending the conference, said that a moment of silence is “equally unacceptable,” Aviv said.
With the issue of school prayer squarely on the table for the first time in years, the Jewish community is strategizing how best to combat it.
At the same time, while many – though not all – continue to express vigorous opposition to any form of organized prayer or reflection, others are quietly suggesting that Jews need to re-evaluate long-held positions on the subject.
“We owe it to ourselves to re-evaluate the issue,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “I doubt the position would change, but the last time we tackled it was 30 to 40 years ago,” said Foxman, whose organization was among the first to write to Clinton last week opposing a constitutional amendment.
More than one G.A. delegate suggested that a moment of silence might not be so terrible. The issue could prove divisive in the community, observers say, as others work to keep erect the wall separating church and state.
However, the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council seems clear in its position and has shifted the issue to the top of its domestic agenda.
“So-called voluntary prayer that is organized by the school is a violation of the Establishment Clause,” which prohibits any government establishment of religion, said Jerome Chanes, co-director of domestic concerns at NJCRAC. “We have always said so.”
NJCRAC leaders, following emergency sessions here, issued an “action alert” to its constituent national agencies and community relations councils around the country, urging Jewish communal leaders to take action on the grass-roots level in an effort to thwart any initiatives on school prayer.
NJCRAC recommended meetings with newly elected and returning legislators, outreach to moderate Republicans and efforts to develop coalition partners.
“The organized Jewish community must take the lead in opposing any proposed school prayer amendment or other legislation mandating organized prayer in the school,” said the communication from Lynn and Lawrence Rubin, NJCRAC’s chair and executive vice chairman, respectively.
Out in the trenches, Jewish leaders are sounding alarm bells that any form of prayer, including a moment of silence, would adversely affect Jewish and other minority children.
“A moment of silence is an innocuous-sounding compromise, but as appealing and safe as it sounds, our experience is that it leads to great abuse,” said Elaine Steinger, executive director of the Jewish Welfare Federation of Des Moines, Iowa.
“It’s a tactic of those who want their form of Christianity in the school,” she said. “It’s a wedge in the door.”
Jewish organizations are seeking to work with other opponents to school prayer to present the most effective coalition possible.
As one organizational official who asked not to be named put it, “We don’t want this to be perceived as a Jewish-versus-Christian issue.”