American Jews and the Current Challenges of Church and State

A panel discussion cosponsored by the Louis Finkelstein Institute of The Jewish Theological Seminary and the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life

October 12, 2004
The Jewish Theological Seminary
3080 Broadway
New York City
7:00–9:00 p.m.

The Louis Finkelstein Institute and the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life are pleased to present a panel discussion on "American Jews and the Contemporary Challenges of Church and State." A distinguished panel of three Jewish leaders, each an attorney, scholar, and representative of a major Jewish organization, will analyze the current situation and the choices facing Jews and others. A distinguished Baptist scholar and advocate will respond to the panel and place the Jewish discussion in a larger context. The panelists include:

  • Marc Stern
    Codirector, Committee on Law and Social Action, American Jewish Congress
  • Nathan Diament
    Director, Institute for Public Affairs, Orthodox Union
  • David Saperstein
    Director and Counsel, Religious Action Center, Union for Reform Judaism
  • Respondent: Melissa Rogers
    Professor, Wake Forest University

American Jews stand at a crossroads today as they consider current relations between church and state, religion and public life. The policies that much of the Jewish community has advocated in the twentieth century are no longer self-evident, and consensus is often elusive. The panel discussion will explore these issues, posing such questions as:

  • While most American Jews still oppose public aid for private and parochial school tuition, a growing minority approve of it and applaud the legal gains that have been made. The Supreme Court in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris upheld the constitutionality of Cleveland's voucher plan. Which side should Jews be on?
  • Under the Clinton administration, a faith-based initiative was approved by Congress and signed into law by the president. Under President Bush, the faith-based initiative has been expanded into eight federal agencies by executive order and has made available more than $680 million to religious groups for social services. Where should Jews stand on this significant change in public policy?
  • Recent court decisions complicate and challenge an expansive understanding of religious liberty. In California, Catholic Social Services was required to provide birth control coverage for its employees because the state Supreme Court refused to allow a religious exemption, judging Catholic Social Services a "secular" organization. When groups lose the right to define their mission as religious, are Jewish institutions threatened?
  • Some Jews oppose the Workplace Religious Freedom Act currently before Congress because they fear it would allow employers, under cover of religion, to discriminate against women or gays. How should Jews reconcile commitment to "old" rights, foremost among them religious free exercise, with contemporary concerns about non-discrimination against minorities? Has secular liberalism, which many Jews embrace with religious intensity, come into irreconcilable conflict with religious liberty?

The program is free and open to the public. For more information about this event, please contact Dr. Alan Mittleman, director of the Finkelstein Institute, at (212) 678-8054.