Jews of all political persuasions appeared in full force to stake out their ideological positions on a "religious equality amendment" this week, as a congressional subcommittee was considering the topic at a hearing in New York City.
The field hearing, the third of five being held across the country, was convened Monday at Hunter College on Manhattan’s Upper East Side by the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution.
The proposed "religious equality amendment" has not yet been officially put forward by Republicans in Congress who back the idea. But it has been floated as a concept for several months.
The concept is a centerpiece of the Christian Coalition’s recently unveiled "Contract with the American Family." The Christian Coalition, founded by Pat Robertson, is considered the pre-eminent organization of the religious right and wields significant political power in the Republican Party.
Among other things, the proposed constitutional amendment is expected to call for voluntary, student-initiated prayer in the public school.
The issue has proved to be particularly polarizing in American society and the rhetoric from players on both sides of the issue is impassioned.
In a rare display of unity in the Jewish community, however, most mainstream Jewish groups, both religious and secular, have banded together to oppose a constitutional amendment.
Monday’s hearing proved to be a far cry from Congress’ usually sedate and decorous proceedings.
About 300 New Yorkers — including many Jews — attended. They added a uniquely Big Apple flavor by treating the hearing like a baseball game — cheering when a member of Congress or witness offered an opinion they liked, booing when they did not agree and hissing and catcalling several times when they found the speaker’s views particularly onerous.
Rep. Charles Canady (R-Fla.), chairman of the subcommittee, seemed taken aback by the lack of decorum.
Canady had been criticized by Jewish groups for scheduling one of the field hearings on a Saturday.
Several times he asked the audience to refrain from commenting, but his request had little effect.
The exchange at times became intense as some members of Congress, including Reps. Henry Hyde (R.-Ill.) and Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.), bickered among themselves.
The witnesses called to testify included Cardinal John O’Connor, the archbishop of New York, and the Rev. James Forbes, senior minister of Riverside Church in New York.
The Jews who testified at the hearing were Arthur Hertzberg, a Conservative rabbi and liberal political activist, and Mayer Schiller, a Chasidic rabbi who teaches at the Yeshiva University High School for Boys and who favors an amendment.
Also testifying was Lisa Herdahl, a Christian mother of six children who filed a lawsuit against the Pontotoc County, Mississippi School District in December because her children were ostracized and demeaned by teachers and students for not wanting to participate in mandated school Bible classes and morning prayers.
She and her family have been subjected to bomb and death threats, she said in her testimony, and her children "have been falsely called devil worshipers and atheists."
She said many families in her town also in opposition to the religious rituals that their children are forced to practice in their school "are afraid to come forward."
"If Congress acts to encourage school-sponsored prayer, it will heighten the oppression of my family and many others," she said.
In his remarks, Hertzberg told about his own experience in Baltimore public schools in the 1930s.
The Lord’s Prayer was recited each day in his school, he said. Because he was Jewish and uncomfortable with the decidedly Christian prayer, he said, "I was made to feel that I was no quite an American, because a real American was a Christian of some sort."
"I came here to testify because I have three grandchildren and a fourth on the way," Hertzberg said. "I swore I would do everything in my power to make sure that this does not happen to them."
He continued: "There is a difference between types of religious expression, between a menorah in my synagogue and a menorah in a public school. We have no right to impose upon each other our religious symbols."
Schiller disagreed, saying an absence of religious speech or activity in a public school is in itself a bias against religious rather than neutrality.
"Everything projects a certain worldview and value. It is a lie of contemporary liberals that they are advocating a neutral situation," he said.
"For 180 years Americans lived with traditional values," he said. "The experiment of stripping America of traditional values has been tried for the last three decades and has failed utterly."
"It is time now to return to the system that for 180 years gave us the America for which we now yearn," he said.
One Jewish member of the audience, Fanshien Mellis, responded to that remark, telling a reporter, "Yeah, we should go back to segregation, slavery and women not permitted to vote?"
Several of the Jewish groups opposed to the proposed amendment to the constitution participated in a news conference preceding Monday’s hearing.
They were part of a coalition of religious groups that tried to swipe the spotlight from the hearing by holding a news conference at Hunter College of the City University of New York one hour before the hearing began.
Twenty-two of the 55 groups that comprise the Coalition to Preserve Religious Liberty, which convened the news conference, are Jewish organizations.
They range from the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations to Orthodoxy’s Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America and its Rabbinical Council of America, from the Workmen’s Circle to the umbrella group, the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council.
It also includes Baptists, evangelicals, humanists, Lutherans, Seventh-Day Adventists, Unitarians and the National Council on Islamic Affairs.
Rabbi David Saperstein, co-chairman of the coalition and director of the Reform movement’s Washington-based Religious Action Center, described the proposed legislation as "bad theology, worse policy and horrendous law."
It "would allow a mixing of religion with government and government with religion that has historically been disastrous for both, reducing to a mere speed bump the strong wall separating church and state," Saperstein said at the news conference.
Saperstein rejected the comparison between religious speech and other types of speech, such as political speech, a comparison that is often made by supporters of a constitutional amendment.
That comparison is "degrading" to religion, Saperstein said.
"Prayer transforms the profane into the divine and is, therefore, much, much more than non-religious speech."
In an effort to one-up the liberal coalition, conservative ideologies who favor an amendment, including two Orthodox Jews, collared Journalists before they could even get inside the college’s doors for n impromptu news conference.
The two Orthodox Jews — Rabbis Yehuda Levin and Schiller — joined the Rev. Lou Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition to back an amendment.
Levin is spokesman for a group calling itself Jews for Morality, an organization he described as having 5,000 Orthodox Jewish supporters.
Levin may be best known for failed runs in New York mayoral and congressional races on the Right to Life ticket, and for organizing bus caravans to Washington for Orthodox Jews to participate in anti-abortion rallies.
At the congressional hearing itself, the two were the lone Jews supporting the amendment in contrast to dozens of Jews who showed up to oppose the idea.
The first two congressional field hearings were held in Harrisonburg, Va., and Tampa, Fla. The last two are scheduled to be held Friday in Oklahoma City and Monday in Los Angeles.