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defending the First Amendment against the Christian right ...

Jews On First!

... because if Jews don't speak out, they'll think we don't mind

A message to members of the Kentucky General Assembly

'Preoccupied with matters of religion and personal faith'

Louisville Courier-Journal, March 29, 2006

The following letter was sent by the Jewish Community Federation of Louisville to members of the Kentucky General Assembly:

We write on behalf of the Community Relations Council of the Jewish Community Federation of Louisville to express our concern that the climate in Frankfort is becoming less conducive to bringing people together around shared values and interests at a time when it is becoming increasingly important for all Kentuckians to come together to improve health care and education and to reduce poverty and crime. Recent events suggest to us that our elected officials appear to be increasingly preoccupied with matters of religion and personal faith, at the expense of taking care of the business of government. We ask that you reflect on our concerns as you move through the legislative session.

House Bill 277, which would authorize government bodies and schools to post religious symbols on public property, recently passed both houses of the legislature by large margins. As of this writing, it has been delivered to the Governor for signature. As amended, this bill will also require posting "In God We Trust" above the House Speaker's dais and direct the posting of a Ten Commandments monument on the Capitol grounds.

For Jews, the Ten Commandments lie at the core of our religious beliefs and form a sacred bond between the Jewish people and our God. For these reasons, we are honored that fundamentally Jewish values would be prominently reflected in proposed legislation. At the same time, our pride is tempered by concerns about the path down which such proposals may take us and our fellow Kentuckians.

Because the Torah commands us to write God's commandments on the doorposts of our homes and to live with them in our hearts and minds each day, as Jews we are moved to consider whether posting sacred symbols in the public domain is worthy of their holiness. We also worry that those who do not belong to the Judeo-Christian tradition may misinterpret the posting of the Ten Commandments in public buildings as an act of exclusion or a subtle message that their religious beliefs are not entitled to the same level of respect or protection. We are concerned that as the posting of religious symbols and messages on public property becomes more commonplace, it will become increasingly difficult for our government to maintain a sharp line between merely recognizing the role of religion in our nation's history and actually endorsing particular religious beliefs.

Thus, while we do not question the good intentions behind HB 277, we urge our elected officials to consider both how such initiatives may be perceived by our many communities, as well as their long-term impact on the bedrock constitutional principle that government and religion each belong to separate spheres -- a principle that has served our diverse nation well since its founding.

HB 277 might have been less concerning had its passage not occurred against the backdrop of other happenings in Frankfort that have been less than welcoming. As Americans, we believe that the strength of our constitutional democracy is best reflected in the degree of respect and tolerance with which the governing majority treats the minority. The Governor's recent prayer breakfast was perceived by many as sending quite a different message -- that citizens sharing the religious beliefs and traditions of those presently in power are the citizens most welcome at the Governor's Mansion. We know this was not the intent. However, wherever religion is involved, the utmost sensitivity must be exercised to ensure that people of other faiths do not feel excluded. We hope that future prayer breakfasts hosted by the highest elected official in the commonwealth are planned and executed in a manner that will allow all our citizens -- regardless of faith -- to participate and feel comfortable in so doing.

Our concerns were recently compounded by reports that elected officials and candidates were being asked to give public testimony about their faith in Jesus Christ. While we will always stand side by side with our Christian brothers and sisters to protect our common rights to express our faiths publicly, we worry that efforts of this sort will cause our elected officials to feel their public service is being evaluated based on a religious litmus test. This is concerning to us because the solutions to the challenge we face in public safety, the justice system, health care, education, housing, and poverty do not belong to any particular religion. Truly moral representation cuts across sectarian lines to focus on the Biblical -- and we believe universal -- commandments to clothe the naked, feed the hungry and house the homeless.

As a Jewish community, we believe that our elected officials should focus less energy on legislating religion itself, and should spend more effort on legislating good policies based on the fundamental moral values shared by all our citizens. We therefore express our respect and gratitude to those members of the legislature who believe that religion may be observed within our homes and our hearts, and need not be endorsed by our government to guide our public conduct. We earnestly hope that all members of the General Assembly will not shrink from defending the time-honored line between the separate spheres of the public and the sacred. We hope that a vote for this principle will never be misperceived as a vote against God or religion. To the contrary, these acts of conscience protect the highest ideals laid out in Section 5 of Kentucky's Bill of Rights -- "no human authority shall, in any case whatever, control or interfere with the rights of conscience."

We believe that this commonwealth and this nation will be best served when government maintains a posture of utmost neutrality among religious beliefs and kind tolerance to the expression of all faiths. Indeed, the words of Thomas Jefferson have never been more true, "Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God; that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship; that the legislative powers of the government reach actions only, and not opinions, -- I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between church and State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore man to all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties."

Of all of Jefferson's many accomplishments none (not even the presidency) were more important to him than the authorship of the statute for religious freedom. It is for this reason his epitaph reads: "Here Was Buried Thomas Jefferson Author of The Declaration of American Independence of the Statute of Virginia For Religious Freedom and Father of the University of Virginia."

The Kentucky Constitution is among the strongest in the nation protecting the rights of the few. We urge that its teachings, and those of its intellectual antecedent Thomas Jefferson, continue to be our guide when addressing the proper role of faith and religion in government. We agree with the Founders' respect for the rights of conscience, and we hope that every time the opportunity arises the legislature will reflect on the wisdom of Jefferson. Such an opportunity is again before you as you consider Senate Bill 236, another bill raising the issue of the posting of religious symbols on public property. We thank each of you for your public service to this commonwealth and may God bless each of you in your service and in your personal lives.

Immediate Past Chairperson
Community Relations Council
Jewish Community Federation of Louisville

Vice Chairperson, CRC
Immediate Past Chairperson
Jewish Council for Public Affairs

Vice Chairperson
Community Relations Council

Vice Chairperson
Community Relations Council


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