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Evangelical Tilt?
Jews fight to balance religious right’s influence.

By Gabriella Burman
The Jewish Times
Reproduced with permission of the Atlanta Jewish Times

There has been no lack of preening by some Christian leaders that their “moral values” votes for a greater role for religion in government and against gay marriage and abortion rights are responsible for President Bush winning a second term.

“Christian evangelicals made the major difference in 2004,” was the headline of a post-election release from the Christian Coalition, a national lobbying group that opposes gay marriage and abortion. According to several polls, three-fourths of white voters who described themselves as born-again Christians or evangelicals — representing a fifth of all voters — supported Bush.

All of this is discomforting to many in the Jewish community, and many Jewish officials — especially in the so-called red (Republican-leaning) states such as Georgia — worry that more and more of their energy these days may be spent stemming the growing Christian influence, especially in public arenas — most of all public schools — that are, by law, supposed to be non-sectarian.

Recent examples locally have included evangelicals who have distributed proselytizing pamphlets and held ostensibly non-sectarian assemblies in public schools, stickers that appear in state biology textbooks challenging the Theory of Evolution, and the case of a Jewish cheerleader at the University of Georgia who complained that her coach ran an overtly Christian program.

Many Jews are also girding for the annual “December dilemma” — the battle to keep overtly religious symbols out of year-end holiday celebrations.

“The Christian right feels emboldened,” said Deborah Lauter, executive director of the Southeast region office of the Anti-Defamation League. “They’ve been effective in using this strategy that those of us who want to keep religion out of the public sphere do so because we hate religion.

“We have to make it understood that it’s because we care so deeply about religion that we have to keep it separate.”

Lauter says that when she trades battle stories with other regional directors, the others deal primarily with anti-Israel activism, while much of her work has to do with stemming Christian influence.

That’s one of the reasons that Marietta resident Jeffrey Selman, whose son attends a Cobb County elementary school, is the lead plaintiff in the textbook sticker case he and six other parents filed against the Cobb County school system two years ago.

Selman, who is Jewish, didn’t get much attention when he first filed his suit; in fact, some people dismissed him as a crank. Today, however, he is making appearances on network news programs and his views and those of his co-plaintiffs are receiving serious attention.

“[My son’s] faith is my responsibility, not the schools,” Selman, 58, testified last week in U.S. District Court in Atlanta.

Speaking later to the Jewish Times, Selman added, “The separation of church and state is why people came to this country. And I don’t want to move again. I’ll defend anyone’s right to practice what they want to, but they can’t tell me I have to do it with them, and that’s what those stickers force.”

Questioning evolution

Lawyers for the plaintiffs argued — and several witnesses testified — that the stickers, which admonish students to study evolution “carefully and critically” and “with an open mind,” make it difficult to question or even discuss evolution without promoting religion. Attorneys for the school board maintain that the stickers are acceptable because they do not mention faith.

The stickers were placed in textbooks in 2002 after more than 2,300 parents in Cobb County signed a petition asking that the school system accommodate other points of view, including religious theories of creation, in science classrooms.

Marjorie Rogers, the Cobb County resident who led the petition drives, argues that the Theory of Evolution is “not a proven fact.” In turn, Selman argues that Rogers is confusing — or doesn’t really care about — the difference between an unproven “theory” and a proven scientific hypothesis.

In 1987, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that creationism — which accepts most of modern physical science but rejects much of modern biology — was a religious belief that could not be taught in public schools along with evolution.

However, the court has never ruled about so-called intelligent design or any other alternative theories of origin.

Meanwhile, a local school board in Dover, Pa., has voted to teach a creationism theory called “intelligent design,” which holds that the universe is so complex it must have been created by an unspecified higher power.
“What Dover has done goes much further than what’s happened in [Cobb County],” Witold Walczak, legal director of the Pennsylvania American Civil Liberties Union, told the Associated Press last week. “As far as we can tell, Dover is the first school district that has actually mandated intelligent design.”

At Atlanta’s Jewish day schools, the debate over evolution is moot. “We teach it,” Rabbi Joseph Abrams, then principal of Yeshiva Atlanta, told the Jewish Times last year. “The Torah doesn’t tell us how God created the world. That’s up to the scientists.”

The Davis Academy, which is affiliated with the Reform movement, does not “censor anything from a religious point of view,” said middle school Principal Peter Cline. “It’s absurd to say that creationism should be taught alongside evolution.”

During the Atlanta textbook trial, parents who described themselves as creationists told reporters that they didn’t want anyone thinking they “came from a monkey,” and that they wanted the biblical account of creation to be given its “fair share” in the public schools.

U.S. District Judge Clarence Cooper, who presided over the notorious Wayne Williams serial murder case in the 1980s, is expected to rule within a month. Whatever his decision, appeals are likely all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Like Lauter, plaintiff Jeffrey Silver, whose daughter attends high school in Cobb County, believes that the Christian right has taken advantage of the Bush administration’s evangelical tilt.

“While those of us who disagreed with the Christian right weren’t looking, they became better organized to the point where a vocal minority overwhelmed the majority, and it’s wrong,” said Silver, 47. “Those stickers have a religious connotation and that flies in the face of the separation of church and state. The only alternative to evolution is faith-based.”

School board members testified during the trial that they voted for the stickers as a compromise to appease parents, and that they knew religion would come up when they put in the disclaimers. Cobb School Board Superintendent Joseph Redden testified he didn’t want the stickers but said the school board overruled him.

Sam Olens, chairman of the Cobb County Commission, agrees with Silver that the county school board had given too much weight to the parents. “That’s the real lesson of this trial,” he said. “Too many elected officials give too much weight to a small group of folks, instead of doing what’s right for the public.”

Olens, a member of Congregation Etz Chaim and of Temple Kol Emeth, has himself been unable to keep religion out of commission proceedings. About once every four months, he says, invocations prior to meetings reference Jesus Christ.

“I prefer they keep it non-denominational but it’s not my role as an elected official to pre-clear a clergy member’s invocation to our body,” he said, adding that members of all faiths are invited to provide an invocation.

Don’t ‘mention a diety’

Selman, who says he has documented the mention of “our Lord Jesus Christ” more often than Olens claims, says the unconstitutional practice can be redressed. “Make a regulation that you can’t mention a diety,” he said. “That’s the basis of American freedom.”

The textbook fight has not gained Cobb County the kind of publicity it wants. Selman and his opponents have been all over network television, including “Good Morning America” on Nov. 12. And that concerns some Cobb parents whose children are applying to colleges nationwide.
“Our SATs already rank the lowest in the country, we want our curriculum to be taken seriously,” said one East Cobb mother who requested anonymity.

Other parents find themselves apologizing for what they call an embarrassment. “The disclaimers don’t represent all our views,” said Frances Solomon, whose son Ben graduated from the science magnet program at Wheeler High School.

Ben Solomon, now a freshman at Emory University, says he finds it “ironic” that his alma mater is now “arguing evolution.”

UGA cheerleader Jaclyn Steele anguished for months before bringing her case to public attention, said her stepfather, David Bernath.

“It has been a gut-wrenching decision for our family to do this,” Bernath said of the case they made against cheerleading coach Marilou Braswell at the University of Georgia. “We thought about not doing this, but we made the decision we couldn’t let this go on.”

An avid cheerleader since her early teens, Steele at first tried to avoid the references to Jesus in the locker room and the prayer sessions at Braswell’s house. Eventually she was prompted to act by other cheerleaders who told her that failure to participate in the prayer sessions would probably keep her off the “A” team.

The family met with Braswell, but it didn’t go well.

“She told us, ‘Well, you know we live in the Bible Belt, what do you expect, this is the way I was raised,’ ” Bernath recalled. “She never got it.”

Braswell eventually toned down the evangelism, but the university fired her after she singled out Steele at the beginning of the school year in a prepared statement she read to cheerleaders about the controversy.

Bernath said his family was heartened by the support it received in the media and at the university. Nevertheless, he worries that the religious right’s influence is increasing, citing his own experience in keeping evangelical pamphleteers out of schools in Marietta. He believes President Bush’s re-election is a harbinger of more to come.

“Even though George Bush says he respects everyone’s faith — and I believe, deep in his heart, he does — the religious right is ready to cash in what it can,” Bernath said.

Braswell already has grass-roots organizations campaigning for her rehiring. A group called the Center for Reclaiming America has urged a letter-writing campaign.
That kind of reaction can be harmful for Jews, say some Jewish officials, who cite the evangelicals’ friendliness on other matters — especially support for Israel.

“It is wrong and short-sighted of Israel and the Jewish community not to reach out to these people, even as they become more and more powerful,” said Yechiel Eckstein, president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, who fund-raises among evangelical Christians for Israeli and Jewish causes.

“The Jewish community needs to get its act together,” Eckstein told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency last week in Istanbul, where he was disbursing funds to bolster security at synagogues. “When you have a president of the United States who is a born-again Christian, a speaker of the House who is a born-again Christian, and you have the strategy of bringing in evangelicals, you are dealing with a force.”

Others counseled a more flexible approach, allying with the Christian right on shared issues and making differences clear on others.

Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for the fervently Orthodox Agudath Israel of America, said Orthodox Jews voted in similar patterns to believing Christians because they were concerned by the same perceived government imbalance toward liberal policies on abortion and gay marriage.

The key, he suggested, is for Jews not to slavishly join one camp or the other, allowing them to point out differences with either side when they arise.

“There may well be crazies, people who want to see total dismantlement of the wall between church and state,” Shafran said of the Christian right. “That doesn’t mean I have to mitigate my concerns.”

He cited abortion as an example.

“We feel there must be a right to abortion, but we feel an unfettered right to abortion, as a post-facto birth control, does not send the right message,” he said. “We would argue for tighter controls on abortion as a last resort.”

The ‘Good News Club’

Religious entanglements in Atlanta public schools are not confined to Cobb County. Jewish residents in other areas are also experiencing a blurring of church and state separation in their children’s schools.

In Fulton County, for example, a Sandy Springs public high school opened a basketball game with a prayer to Jesus. And earlier this month, parents at Roswell North Elementary School received a letter inviting their children to participate in something called the Good News Club.

The after-school program, run by the Child Evangelism Fellowship, gives children an opportunity “to receive Jesus Christ as Savior,” according to the group’s Web site.

“My antennae extended out about as far as they can when I read the name of the club,” said Rabbi Harvey Winokur of Temple Kehillat Chaim in Roswell. Winokur’s 6-year-old children, a son and a daughter, are students at Roswell North.

But Winokur could not protest the letter, he said, because a Supreme Court ruling based on a similar case in New Jersey allows religious activity on school grounds after school as long as teachers in the classroom do not advance the program and the school makes its facilities available to other after-school clubs.

“They did their homework,” Winokur said.

Unfortunately, he added, “over the next four years I think the iceberg is going to melt further.”

Lauter is less pessimistic. “We have just as much moral authority to talk about these issues as [the evangelicals] do — we just have to do it in a louder voice.”

The challenge, Lauter said, is to bridge the gap between the red and blue states that mark the American political divide. The textbook sticker trial “reminds me of ‘The Passion,’ ” she said, referring to the Mel Gibson film depicting the last hours of Jesus Christ that stirred controversy earlier this year. “Then we were seeing two different movies, and once again we’re not looking through each other eyes. Where do the twain meet?” she asked. “It’s a dramatic world view difference.”
Lauter worries that the courts, which have consistently upheld the separation between church and state, may take a hit, with four spots on the Supreme Court bench possibly opening up during a second Bush administration.

The Supreme Court already has observers concerned. Justices announced last month that they will decide the constitutionality of Ten Commandment displays on government land and buildings, taking up an issue that seemed to have been decided in 1980 when the court banned posting of the Ten Commandments in public school classrooms.

“The [conservatives] are constructing the case as narrowly as they can,” said one lawyer who clerks for a judge in U.S. District Court. “But in principle there is no difference between the two cases.”

Added Lauter: “It’s another instance of evangelism in which the Christian right is saying we need to have more faith in the public square. And we’re all in the midst of saying, is this the new trend in America?”
Not if he can help it, says Selman. “People say little words don’t hurt,” Selman said. “But how can something so little be harmful? Well, a .22 shot in the heart can kill you.”

Ron Kampeas of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency contributed to this report.


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