Too Close For Comfort?

Bill could free churches and synagogues to endorse candidates for public office without jeopardizing their tax-free status.

05/31/02
Washington Correspondent
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Too Close For Comfort? A bill currently working its way through the House could free churches and synagogues to endorse candidates for public office without jeopardizing their tax-free status. Thanks, but no thanks, say Jewish groups. Across the spectrum, Jewish leaders say the “House of Worship Political Speech Protection Act” crosses dangerous church-state lines and could put clergy under enormous pressure to get more involved in the partisan fray than they want to be. “It’s a really bad idea on a number of levels,” said Michael Lieberman, counsel to the Washington office of the Anti-Defamation League. “The starting point is that it doesn’t serve any real purpose.” Supporters argue that it’s a free-speech issue for churches, while opponents reject that claim. The measure is being promoted heavily by the Christian Coalition, which has faced persistent legal questions because of its controversial voter guides distributed in churches across the country. Church-state groups have contended that the guides are thinly disguised partisan appeals that almost always favor Republicans, and that the churches that distribute them are risking their tax free status. That has led to a prolonged battle between the religious group and the Internal Revenue Service. The result: current legislation, which would legalize that activity. Lieberman said the measure — and a second similar bill—are unconstitutional because they would give religious groups an advantage over nonreligious organizations. Other Jewish groups echo the ADL’s concerns. “It would be hard to think of an initiative that would do more to undermine the integrity of houses of worship,” said Richard Foltin, legislative director of the American Jewish Committee. “It could lead to a situation in which houses of worship are seen as proxies in political battles.” With so much attention focused on campaign finance reform, “it would be ironic if this passes,” Foltin said. “It would provide the first opportunity to make tax-deductible contributions to political campaigns.” The Orthodox Union, which sometimes sides with Christian conservatives on church-state questions, is also expressing “strong concerns” about the measure, according to the groups’ Washington representative, Nathan Diament. “We think it could lead to rabbis and synagogues being pressured into endorsing candidates,” he said. The American Jewish Congress also submitted testimony at this week’s hearings of the Ways and Means Committee. The measure, introduced by Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.), has more than 120 co-sponsors. But opponents say it’s unclear if the House leadership is ready to make the measure a priority. And it could face tougher going in the Democratic Senate — although some Jewish leaders fear it could slip through the cracks. “This is the kind of thing that sometimes gets passed in the dead of night,” said one top Jewish activist here. “It’s something we have to watch very closely.” Volunteer Program Could Face Jewish Group’s Wrath Also on the church-state front, a fight could be brewing over AmeriCorps, the “domestic Peace Corps” that provides training and stipends for mostly young volunteers who work in nonprofit agencies. President George W. Bush has promised to expand AmeriCorps as part of his effort to bolster homeland security, and a lot of nonprofit groups — including many Jewish ones — are hoping to get in on the action. Only one hitch: Another Jewish group may soon find itself in court fighting the agency, which was a centerpiece of the first Clinton administration. The American Jewish Congress is currently waiting for AmeriCorps leaders to respond to questions about whether one program under the volunteer agency umbrella crosses the church-state line, according to Marc Stern, the group’s legal director. “As far as we can see, there’s a flat-out constitutional violation,” Stern said. “We began asking questions to the people who run it more than 13 months ago. That’s more than enough time to get some answers.” At issue is a program at Notre Dame University, partially funded by AmeriCorps, which trains teachers who are subsequently placed in Catholic schools across the South. “These teachers go into religious schools for unsupervised teaching of core subjects,” Stern said. And according to materials obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests, Stern said, “Some are also teaching religion.” Using government funds to teach classes in religion, he said, would be a clear church-state violation. It could also represent a back-door approach to the Bush administration’s faith-based initiative. That series of proposals has been stripped of the majority of its most controversial provisions. What remains — tax breaks to boost charitable groups, including religious ones — faces tough going in Congress because of the mushrooming budget crisis. Stern said the AJ Congress will decide in the next week or two whether to pursue legal action against AmeriCorps. Ambassador Woes Continue Whoever finally gets the nod as Israel’s new ambassador to Washington may wish to think twice about the appointment. The reason: Israel’s leaders don’t seem to think the post is a very important one, even if the U.S. is Israel’s best and perhaps only ally. The ambassador’s residence has been open for more than a month, since David Ivry returned to Israel after a two-year rotation. But a political spat in Jerusalem has kept the government from choosing a successor. Ivry stayed an extra three months after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres couldn’t agree on his replacement, but the extra time wasn’t enough for the bigwigs in Jerusalem. “Of course, it’s a problem,” said one Israeli official this week. “It looks bad, not having an ambassador at a time like this. It makes it harder to deal with Congress, to deal with the administration.” The embassy continues to function, this source said, but the lack of an ambassador means that the Israeli outpost here is diplomatically hobbled at a time when U.S.-Israel relations are in flux and the Jewish state is taking a beating around the world. “It’s one more thing we have to contend with,” this source said. Israeli newspapers have run countless stories in recent weeks about rumored candidates, but Israeli officials say many of those stories are the result of trial balloons by Sharon and Peres forces, or individuals trying to promote themselves for the job. The problem in Jerusalem: Under their coalition agreement, Sharon and Peres have to agree on a candidate for the most important Israeli diplomatic post. With the two leaders taking very different views of the future of peace negotiations, finding a compromise candidate has proved almost impossible. Initially, Sharon was said to favor the hawkish Dore Gold, a former U.N. ambassador — a proposal that did not sit well with the dovish Peres. Israeli newspapers reported this week that Peres has agreed to support former Tel Aviv Mayor Roni Milo — but that Sharon is not yet convinced. Also on the list: Avi Pazner, a former ambassador to France and Italy and a spokesman for former prime minister Yitzhak Shamir; Deputy Defense Minister Dalia Rabin Pelosoff; Danny Gillerman, the president of the Israel Federation of Chambers of Commerce; and Ephraim Halevy, the head of the Mossad. This week Israeli sources added another name: Zalman Shoval, a top Likud official who served as ambassador twice in the past decade and won widespread praise for his Hasbara skills. Long Knives Await Social Programs Congress has fled Washington for the really important work of government — fund raising and campaigning. With critical congressional elections just five months away, the pull of politics is stronger than ever. But the Memorial Day recess will provide only temporary respite from politically explosive debates over an out-of-control budget, and how to parcel out money for vital programs. The stakes are enormous for the Jewish community, which uses at-risk government funding for countless health and social service programs. “It’s going to be bloody,” said Reva Price, Washington representative for the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA). “They’re not even sure how much money they have to work with; divvying it up is going to get really ugly.” The skyrocketing costs of fighting a war in Afghanistan and protecting the nation against new terror attacks, the lingering impact of the recession and last year’s big tax cuts are all coming together to produce the makings of a big budget train wreck. And as usual, health and human service programs will be the first to feel the knives of congressional budget cutters when lawmakers get down to serious appropriating for the next fiscal year. But first, the Senate must finish work on a massive supplementary appropriations bill to help pay for the anti-terror war and homeland security. The version passed by the House in the wee hours last Friday includes an extra $200 million in military aid for Israel. That, along with $50 million in aid for the Palestinians, faces no serious opposition in the Senate. But the Senate bill calls for a total of $31 billion; the House bill called for $28.8 billion. Reconciling the two could be difficult. “Discretionary spending is going to be more limited than ever,” said an official with a major Jewish group here. “Under the best-case scenario, there’re going to be painful cuts in many programs that directly benefit our community.The worst case is that we see soaring deficits and wholesale cutting that could leave many of our agencies facing serious shortfalls.”

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03/06/2012 - 21:41

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