Religious Right Attacks Spitzer


A powerful Christian right group says it pressured Gov. Eliot Spitzer into proclaiming a day of prayer and reflection in the state on Monday — just four days before the event.

According to the Web site of Focus on the Family, which has a National Day of Prayer Task Force, Spitzer’s office did not initially return phone calls from the organization regarding the proclamation.

That prompted the group, whose declared mission is to “publicize and protect America’s Christian heritage,” to organize a phone campaign, claiming he was the only governor in the nation to hold out.

The proclamation was announced on Monday, but dated April 25. Paul Larrabee, a spokesman for the Democratic governor, said Spitzer always intended to sign it.

“I don’t think they are aware of the chronology,” he said. Calling the event an “opportunity to reflect,” Larrabee said Spitzer was “happy to participate in that.”

But Focus On The Family Chairman Rev. James Dobson said in a statement Monday “Gov. Spitzer was asked in January to issue such a declaration by April 1 if possible. No response was received as of Friday, April 27. Phone calls from the governor’s office were not returned, and pastors and volunteers who inquired were treated rudely and given no indication that a proclamation was forthcoming…

“Considering what happened in New York City on 9/11, and the fact that New York has been most often targeted for destruction by terrorists, we believe prayer in that state should be a priority. We are pleased that Gov. Spitzer has now designated Thursday, May 3rd as a day of prayer.”

A spokesman for the group, Gwen Stein, said the number of calls to Spitzer’s office was “likely in the thousands.”

Focus On The Family is also angry at Spitzer because of his proposal to allow civil unions for same-sex couples and for not scheduling this year the prayer breakfast held annually under Republican Gov. George Pataki.

The National Day of Prayer, established by Congress in 1952 and signed by President Harry S. Truman, is supported by the Orthodox Union, whose leaders have participated in public commemorations.

“It’s a call for people to pray in their own faith traditions, in support of the welfare of the United States,” said Nathan Diament, director of the OU’s Institute for Public Affairs in Washington.

Other Jewish groups are uncomfortable with the idea. “We think the government should not be in the prayer business,” said Mark Pelavin of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center. “Prayer should be the business of individuals.” But Pelavin said he was more concerned about “government funding of religious groups and religion encroaching on government space. That’s what keeps me up at night.”

The proclamation signed by Spitzer noted that the Day of Prayer would be observed “in churches, synagogues, statehouses, halls of government, other public venues and within our homes.” It does not mention other houses of worship.

According to a Focus On The Family policy statement, the National Day of Prayer was created for the “expressed purpose of organizing and promoting prayer and observances conforming to a Judeo-Christian system of values,” while recognizing the right of others to “organize and participate in activities that are consistent with their own beliefs.”

Diament said that while Focus On The Family may not be ecumenical, many observances of the day are. For example, a White House observance last year included an imam. “You have to separate the volunteers who work on this from the more central purpose, as recognized by Congress and by presidents,” he said.

Religious preschools in New York City have long been exempt from permit requirements and other stringencies. But that could change under a proposal from activist health commissioner Dr. Thomas Frieden, who wants to mandate criminal and child-abuse background checks, increased training and other measures that would affect the largest schools.

Under Frieden’s proposal, religious preschools attached to elementary schools would be exempt from permits or background checks, but would be subject to other provisions of the health code and would, for the first time, be monitored for violations.

The regulations range from fire safety measures to rules on space, the keeping of pets, control of insects and rodents, ventilation and lighting and plumbing, among other issues.

“There has not been a significant revision of child care regulations in nearly 20 years,” Frieden said in a statement.

At an April 19 public hearing, representatives of the Catholic Archdiocese and Agudath Israel of America, among others, raised concerns that a sea change of new regulations would wreak havoc, forcing preschools out of existing spaces in neighborhoods where new quarters are scarce, and that the increased administrative costs would be too much to bear. And then there are free-exercise-of-religion concerns. “We are considering all comments very carefully and think important points have been made,” said Sara Markt, a spokeswoman for the health department, on Tuesday. “This is precisely what the comment period is for.”

The city has extended the public comment period until July 30, inviting providers to send their input in writing. But a watering down of the regulations is seen as unlikely.

“I don’t think they intend to back off,” said Brooklyn Councilman David Yassky, who represents Williamsburg, where tens of thousands of chasidic children attend unregulated preschools. He’s raised objections with Frieden and with City Hall.

He said that while no one objects to the safety enhancements, “this regulation requires teachers to have certain certification and for [schools] to have low student-teacher ratios. That really gets into the education mission of the school. It really does cross the line between church and state.” The regulations, he says, would force schools “to be in permanent negotiations with the government.”

Rabbi Adam Mintz, former leader of the Lincoln Square Synagogue on the Upper West Side, has joined the staff of city Comptroller William Thompson, sources say.

The rabbi, a past president of the New York Board of Rabbis who formed a breakaway West Side congregation called Kehilat Rayim Ahuvim, is working on the comptroller’s Jewish ties at a time when Thompson is planning a 2009 mayoral bid.Rabbi Mintz did not return calls left on his voice mail Tuesday.

Sources say Rabbi Mintz is working with Pincus Hikind, who has been a Jewish liaison at the comptroller’s office since the early ‘90s when it belonged to Alan Hevesi.