WASHINGTON, July 21 (JTA) — Proponents of a bill to provide federal aid to secure religious sites have fought off a challenge from some Jewish lawmakers who worried the bill might infringe on the separation between church and state. The High-Risk Non-Profit Security Enhancement Act passed the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee on Wednesday despite a challenge from several senators who wanted to cut aid for security improvements to houses of worship. The committee debate focused heavily on the split views within the Jewish community, and seemed to emphasize the fact that Jewish sites, particularly synagogues and other sectarian institutions, were sure to be beneficiaries of the $100 million being considered for the project. Federal aid would be a welcome relief to many Jewish organizations and institutions that have faced staggering security costs as terrorism fears have risen in recent years. But while several Jewish groups are leading the charge for the legislation, there is a quiet debate among other Jewish leaders and organizations who worry that their peers are ignoring traditional Jewish views on separation of church and state to back a bill that would benefit the community. Jewish proponents of the legislation have tried to show a united front for the bill, but the schism within the community is becoming more obvious. Two Jewish lawmakers, Sens. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), spoke in favor of the bill Wednesday, while Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) co-sponsored the amendment to deny aid to houses of worship, and was backed by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.). Lautenberg’s opposition is noteworthy since he is a former general chairman of the United Jewish Appeal, which later merged with other organizations to become the United Jewish Communities federation umbrella group. The UJC was a chief proponent of the legislation. The amendment would have banned security enhancements to nonprofit institutions used for sectarian instruction or religious worship. Lautenberg argued that giving federal funds to religious sites, even with safeguards written into the bill, crossed a line of government support for religion. “We ought to do it in a way that goes through the constitutional parameters that are necessary to maintain,” he said. He also presented a letter submitted last month by the Reform and Reconstructionist Jewish movements, which he called an example of the Jewish community’s divisions on the bill. In the letter, Reform and Reconstructionist leaders argued that federal aid or loan guarantees for houses of worship “seriously weakens the wall separating church and state, which is a vital protector of religious liberty for all Americans.” The bill’s sponsors said the legislation passes constitutional tests because the money would be used for a secular purpose and would not advance the institutions’ religious mandates. “I would be among the first to avoid a First Amendment issue of separation of church and state, which I think is a bedrock of America,” Specter said. “But here we have institutions that have some religious purposes that are at risk because they are religious institutions.” Lieberman stressed that the aid would not be used for religious purposes, but to secure people who happen to be in the building. Both sides of the debate in the Jewish community agree that securing facilities has become a crisis — but they differ on whether that concern should allow for a change in the community’s traditional position on the issue. Groups like the American Jewish Committee, American Jewish Congress and Orthodox Union say the government should help meet the need to protect American citizens. “In the context of the severe threat of life and limb posed by the threat of terrorism, and the specific safeguards put in place to ensure funds do not flow to pervasively religious institutions, this does not violate the separation of church and state,” said Richard Foltin, the AJCommittee’s legislative director. But others say Jewish groups have options beside taking federal money. “We think there are competing crises, one being the sustained, broadside attack on church and state,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism. The amendment was defeated 10-6 and the legislation was forwarded to the full Senate. However, opposition to the bill may prevent it from passing Congress this year. “I think it’s fair to say virtually no legislation is going to pass Congress before it adjourns this year unless it is completely non-controversial,” said Charles Konigsberg, UJC’s vice president for public policy. “And that’s certainly not the case with this bill.” However, $50 million is earmarked in this year’s Homeland Security appropriations bill for the security of nonprofit institutions. If that bill passes, the money will be allocated for a one-year period.
JTA Staff This article was posted by JTA staff.