WASHINGTON, July 13 (JTA) — Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush is again coming under criticism for the role that his religious faith might play in his presidency.
Bush, the governor of Texas, signed a proclamation calling June 10, 2000, Jesus Day in Texas. The American Jewish Congress said the proclamation violates the “spirit and intention of the First Amendment of the Constitution.”
Bush has previously been criticized for remarks he made stating that only Christians go to heaven and his naming Jesus as the political philosopher or thinker with whom he most identified.
The principal problem with the Jesus Day proclamation, said AJCongress Executive Director Phil Baum, “is not that it acknowledges the important civic contributions of a particular faith, but that it assumes the profound regard in which the teachings and person of Jesus Christ are held by the Christian community are the norm for all the residents of the state of Texas.
“Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, members of other faith groups and non-believers, all of whom are entitled to equal respect, would have difficulty responding to the governor’s call to practice civic responsibility by ‘following Christ’s message’ on June 10,” said Baum.
AJCongress notes that while such proclamations have become “customary and routine” — saying that Congress and many states have, for instance, issued proclamations commemorating the life and teachings of the late Lubavitch Rebbe Menachem Schneerson — “all such statements are offensive and erode the protection afforded minority beliefs” by the First Amendment.
A spokesperson for Gov. Bush’s office provided a number of examples of other recent Bush proclamations concerning religion.
They included proclamations honoring the 100th anniversary of the Baha’i faith in North America and the 300th anniversary of the founding of the Khalsa, “a community of Sikhs committed to defending and upholding their faith.”
Bush also has signed proclamations declaring Honor Israel Day and a week of Holocaust remembrance, and honoring the Austin Chabad House.
A Bush campaign spokesman said that while Bush is “sensitive” to the AJCongress’ concerns, “he does not fully share them.”
“The governor recognizes the importance of the separation of church and state,” said Ari Fleischer. But he said “it is a long American tradition” and “an appropriate function for governors to issue proclamations honoring groups both religious and secular in nature for important events, adding, “It doesn’t mean the governor endorses those causes.”
This year was the 10th annual March for Jesus, but the first year its organizers called the date of the march Jesus Day.
The event, which originated in Austin, Texas, in 1991, has since spread throughout the United States and more than 170 countries.
The march began as a celebration of unity to bring all Christians, regardless of denomination, together in worship, said Paul Sanchez, who with his wife, Kathy, serves as central Texas state representative for March for Jesus USA and wrote a letter to Bush requesting a proclamation.
This year, the event was expanded to include “doing what Jesus asked us to do,” said Sanchez. That includes making sure that “no one goes hungry, no one goes fatherless and no one suffers alone,” said Sanchez, so participants spent part of the day serving the community in various ways.
Bush’s proclamation stated that “throughout the world, people of all religions recognize Jesus Christ as an example of love, compassion, sacrifice and service.”
It also urges “all Texans to answer the call to serve those in need. By volunteering their time, energy or resources to helping others, adults and youngsters follow Christ’s message of love and service in thought and deed.”
AJCongress called the proclamation “a recent and egregious example” of the common practice by elected officials “to seek to accommodate the religious view of their constituents by issuing proclamations endorsing or commemorating the view or practices of various sectarian groups or denominations.”
Bush was not the only governor to commemorate Jesus Day.
According to the March for Jesus organization’s national offices in Atlanta, two governors recognized the day with a letter or certificate and nine others issued proclamations. Three of those nine are Democrats, including North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt.
The National Jewish Democratic Council said the Jesus Day proclamation is another reason to worry about Bush’s respect for the First Amendment.
“The fact that Gov. Bush affixed his signature and the seal of the state of Texas to a proclamation establishing ‘Jesus Day’ demonstrates the willingness to place the imprimatur of government literally on one faith,” said Ira Forman, NJDC’s executive director.
“When taken together” with “Bush’s own statements supporting school prayer and the public posting of religious symbols,” continued Forman, “it is one further example that the meaning of separation of church and state as we’ve understood it over the last 40 years would be dramatically changed in a Bush administration.”
But Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, found the AJCongress criticism troubling.
“This is again a sad example of the American Jewish Congress and other organizations showing their anti-Christian bias,” Brooks said. “The Jewish community has to stop beating up on Christians for belief in their faith.”
Brooks also said the criticism of Bush was “politically motivated,” wondering why Vice President Al Gore — who has said that he asks himself “What Would Jesus Do?” — when he faces a tough decision has not taken heat for his own public professions of Christian faith.
In addition, Brooks asked why AJCongress had not spoken out when, for instance, Congress issued the proclamation commemorating Schneerson.
Matthew Dorf, director of government relations for the AJCongress, noted that his group’s statement did specifically single out the rebbe proclamation as improper and said that AJCongress would be “more vigilant” in the future in watching for similar proclamations.
Rabbi Levi Shemtov, director of the Washington office of American Friends of Lubavitch, also objected to the AJCongress’ statement.
“As long as we are afforded equal access and rights for the Jewish faith, I don’t see any point in unnecessarily offending other people’s religious sensibilities,” he said.
“The moment the Jewish faith is given inferior status, I will be the first one to object,” Shemtov continued.
“So far in my experience, religious expression has not brought any discrimination, but has eased suspicion which might arise when one is reluctant to say what he really represents. While we need to be vigilant, we have to be careful not to be unnecessarily sensitive.”