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Attack on Religious Right Spurs Flap over Voter Registration Drive

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Sponsors of the organized Jewish community’s voter registration drive are distancing themselves from part of their own guidebook because it attacks the religious right.

Jewish Republicans launched a broadside attack against the guide last week, charging that the “1996 Get Out the Vote Program Plan and Action Manual” amounts to a partisan effort to urge votes for Democratic candidates.

A sample sermon, which is included in the guide and which assaults the religious right, has drawn fire from Matt Brooks, executive director of the National Jewish Coalition, the Republican Jewish group. Brooks said that even though he supports the effort to register American Jews to vote, he is consulting an attorney to investigate whether to file charges against the Jewish groups for what he says is partisan activity.

As non-profit, tax-exempt organizations, Jewish groups and synagogues are prohibited by the Internal Revenue Service from engaging in partisan political activity.

The charges prompted the sponsors of the effort to apologize for the tone of the offending section. At the same time, they maintained that the sermon and the larger effort to register voters is not partisan.

“This is a small blemish in a much larger effort,” said Lawrence Rubin, the executive vice chairman of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council.

NJCRAC and the four Jewish religious movements sponsored the voter guide, which was endorsed by dozens of major Jewish organizations and local federations.

The flap came to a head as the largest religious right organization, the Christian Coalition, gathered here during the weekend for its annual convention.

It also came as the centerpiece of the coalition’s legislative agenda, the passage of a religious equality amendment to the Constitution, appeared likely to die in Congress.

The voter guide’s sample sermon admonishes American Jews that “the religious right is a threat to our nation, to the Jewish community and to our fundamental liberties.”

The sample sermon goes on to say that “the leaders of the religious right are peddlers of coercion who, if given the chance, will launch a radical assault on pluralism, civil rights and religious freedom.”

Brooks of the NJC says the statements, using code words, amount to a call to vote for Democrats.

“In the minds of the Jewish community, the religious right and the Republican Party are linked,” Brooks said. “For any member of the Jewish community who was sitting in shul during the High Holy Days and heard this sermon, they could have [reached] no other conclusion but to register and vote Democrat.”

Whether any rabbi actually used the sermon is unknown. One official with a religious organization who sponsored the effort and asked not to be identified said, “No rabbi worth his salt would have used the sample sermon.”

Sponsors of the effort agree that the section on the religious right had, as Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, put it, “a more combative tone and was more aggressive than is appropriate.”

But he, like other sponsors, disputed Brooks’ charge that it advocates partisan activity.

“Those who are magnifying the one paragraph, in one appendix, of a 20-page document should frankly be ashamed of themselves,” said Pelavin, whose organization prepared the guide.

As for Brooks’ threat to take legal action, Marc Stern, co-director of the American Jewish Congress’ legal department, said Brooks would have a difficult time proving his case.

“The IRS generally acts only when there is the clearest of evidence,” Stern said. “That does not appear to be the case.”

The voter guide is not the first time that the Religious Action Center has locked horns with the Christian Coalition.

When the Federal Election Commission filed a lawsuit last month accusing the Christian Coalition of mobilizing to support Republican candidates, Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center, hailed the action.

In a statement, Saperstein chided the coalition for “being a booster of one political party.”

Officials with the Christian Coalition did not return numerous requests for comment.

Not all American Jews, however, believe that the Christian Coalition is a danger for the Jewish community.

Two rabbis, Yechiel Eckstein and Daniel Lapin, addressed the Christian Coalition’s annual convention here last week.

Eckstein, founder and president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, praised the coalition for bringing “moral sanity, sobriety and principles back into society.”

He received a standing ovation from the more than 3,000 activists when he said, “True Christians are among the Jews’ best friends.”

In an apparent swipe directed at some in the Jewish establishment, Lapin, founder of Toward Tradition, a group of Jewish conservatives, told the gathering, “Remember that there are all kinds of attempts that the secular left employs to silence us religious conservatives.”

“They scream about separation of church and state,” he said. “They attempt to silence you with the statement that anti-secular liberalism equals anti- Semitism. Don’t you believe it.”

Meanwhile, what had been the centerpiece of the Christian Coalition’s legislative agenda — a constitutional amendment that would allow for organized school prayer — appeared to be breathing its last gasps in the 104th Congress.

Prospects for passage of a school prayer and religious liberties constitutional amendment were slim from the start: The Senate has never considered it, and it has always been uncertain whether the votes would be there in the House.

Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) had promised the Christian Coalition that the House would vote before Congress adjourns at the end of September to enable the coalition to include a list of how each member voted in the 45 million voter guides it plans to distribute to 100,000 churches in October.

But congressional leaders have since shied away from that promise, wary of a divisive debate about religion in the waning weeks of Congress, according to observers.

A dispute between Republican lawmakers over language of the measure is largely to blame for its demise in this Congress.

Two factions, one led by Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), the other led by Rep. Ernest Istook (R-Okla.), have been unable to agree on whether an amendment should focus broadly on religious freedoms or explicitly allow for student-sponsored prayer in public schools.

And at the Christian Coalition’s convention, there was scarcely an utterance about school prayer or constitutional amendments.

“We interpreted that as a fairly significant sign that there’s no organized constituency pushing hard for this right now,” Pelavin said.

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