Almost as quickly as Republican leaders embraced the Christian Coalition’s new “Contract with the American Family,” most — but not all — Jewish groups vehemently rejected it.
The proposed solutions to America’s social ill in the contract “are wrong- headed, misguided and divisive,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.
Dubbing the new contract a “Contract with Some of America’s Families,” the American Jewish Congress said in a statement, “The proposed contract runs roughshod over the diversity of American family and religious life.”
Modeled after the GOP’s “Contract with America,” the coalition’s 10-point plan calls for the return of prayer to America’s schools, a ban on most abortions and the return of religious displays to public property.
The coalition’s executive director, Ralph Reed, unveiled the agenda Wednesday at a Capitol Hill ceremony.
“It is a pro-family agenda, and it is supported by the vast majority of the American people, Republican and Democrat, Christian and Jew, black and white, Protestant and Catholic,” Reed said.
As he spoke, Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Texas), a contender for the Republican nomination for president, Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and other members of Congress filed in to offer their support for the plan.
The Christian Coalition boasts 1.5 million members. Considered the pre-eminent organization of the religious right,it wields considerable power in the Republic Party.
Among the most potentially explosive issues is the contract’s centerpiece, which calls for a “religious equality” constitutional amendment that would allow for voluntary, student initiated, non-denominational prayer.
The contract also calls for a $500 per child annual tax credit, vouchers for private school education, disbanding the Education Department to give funding directly to local school districts, restricting pornography and ending government subsidies to the National Endowment for the Arts and public television.
Gingrich promised that the House would vote on all the provisions in the coalition’s contract.
“Just as we kept our word in the first hundred days, you’re going to find that in the new `Contract with the American Family’s that House Republicans are going to be totally committed,” he told cheering coalition supporters.
“Everybody back home can learn who says in Washington and does in Washington the same things that they say and do back home,” Gingrich said.
Not all Republicans lined up to support the coalition’s contract.
Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who has attacked the Christian Coalition during his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, labeled the contract “extremist.”
“It is subterfuge designed to undermine a woman’s right to choose and the separation of church and state,” said the Jewish senator in a statement.
In a twist, Specter and Reed found themselves going separate ways once again, as the two men unknowingly crossed paths by a bank of Capitol Hill elevators just prior to Reed’s news conference. As Reed went up to the Capitol reception room, Specter stepped onto a different elevator, headed down toward his office.
Democrats, meanwhile, were also quick to condemn the coalition’s initiative.
Although many in the Jewish organizational world voiced total opposition to the contract, some Orthodox groups withheld immediate judgment.
“We’re going to look at the contract issue by issue,” said Betty Ehrenberg, executive director of of the Institute for Public Affairs of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.
Orthodox groups have made vouchers for private school education and family tax credits key components of their legislative agenda.
Other Jewish organizations appeared united in opposition to the forthcoming religious equality amendment, which is expected to be introduced in Congress during the next 100 days.
It is not clear exactly what such a proposed amendment would include.
Among the Jewish group firing off immediate responses to the contract were B’nai B’rith International, the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee, all of which condemned the idea of a religious equality amendment.
“The battle over the contract looks to be the first salvo in a battle that could well determine whether or not America will remain a pluralistic society,” said Steve Gutow, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council.
For his part, Reed said religious minorities should not feel threatened.
“What we’re interested in is non-denominational, student-initiated or citizen- initiated religious speech in non-compulsory settings,” Reed said, citing his particular support for prayer at school graduations.
As for the public display of religious symbols, Reed said he supported the posting of the Ten Commandments in public buildings and the display of nativity scenes or menorahs on public property.
Many Christian leaders also condemned the coalition’s contract.
“The Christian Coalition does not stand for the values that I learned in the Bible, the values of caring for the poor, the sick, the hungry, and the outcast,” said Robert Brooks, director of government relations for the Episcopal Church.
Brooks was one of several religious leaders who held a separate news conference on Capitol Hill to voice opposition to the Christian Coalition’s proposals.
The contract “raises many vital questions about the legitimate and pressing problems American families face today,” Saperstein said at the opposing conference, which was attended by several Jewish activists.
But, Saperstein stressed, “we profoundly reject the Christian Coalition’s answers.”