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
“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.”
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
“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
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
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
“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
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
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
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
“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
“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.”
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