Illinois Senator Durbin elaborates on religious freedom

By Joel Lanceta

Surrounded by the ornate Byzantine architecture of the Kehilath Anshe Maaiv (KAM) Isaiah Israel Temple, Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) described the tumultuous journey of his grandmother and her children immigrating to the United States in search of religious freedom.

“My grandmother, a woman with no formal education, in one gesture did the first act of defiance in the family in the name of practicing her religion freely,” Durbin told the crowd of over 100.

Durbin’s speech, “Preserving the Separation of Church and State,” was the keynote address at the first KAM Isaiah Israel Church-State Press Conference, designed to educate the public on the issue of religion in the government.

The event was cosponsored by many organizations, among them the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Illinois, the American Constitution Society, and the Newberger Hillel Center at the University.

“We’re thrilled to have Senator Durbin speaking here,” said Daniel Schlesinger, the President of KAM Isaiah Israel. “He is our primary supporter for what we believed should be the strong separation of church and state.”

In April, KAM Isaiah Israel established a Church and State Committee in response to what it saw as infringements of the separation of church and state under the federal government.

Some of these violations included the Bush administration’s establishment of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives and the 2002 Supreme Court Case Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, which upheld the constitutionality of school vouchers for parochial schools.

The KAM committee, under the leadership of former appellate judge and Law School Professor Abner Mikva, now plans to hold more information sessions on the issue of religious freedom.

Durbin supported KAM Isaiah Israel’s stance on the issue, citing founding fathers James Madison and Thomas Jefferson as champions for a wall of separation between church and state.

He said that Madison recognized that the history of religious persecution is based on government and politics establishing an official church. “He believed the government support of an official religion could threaten the liberty of every citizen in America,” Durbin said.

He also quoted from Jefferson’s Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom in Virginia. “Jefferson expressed his belief that religious liberty is necessary to ensure that citizens’ rights are being upheld for all aspects of life,” he said.

Citing the First Amendment and the Establishment Clause of the Constitution prohibiting the establishment of any official religion in the United States, Durbin criticized the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives for promoting religious organizations that proselytize and discriminate in favor of their own religious beliefs.

The faith-based initiatives allow certain religious organizations direct federal funding instead of requiring that they set up a secular social service agency—not directly run by the religious organization—to receive the funds.

“President Bush has said the agency is necessary to allow faith-based organizations access to federal funds,” Durbin said. “What’s wrong with the current policy? The faith-based initiatives that the President is proposing would radically change the way religion is held in the government by making make it possible for the government to directly subsidize, at the taxpayer’s expense, every religious element, now that there’s so many religions in America.”

Another of Durbin’s targets was the Head Start Reauthorization Act, which the House of Representatives has passed. It included a provision allowing religious organizations to receive federal funds to conduct Head Start programs in which they can hire teachers—usually of their own religious beliefs.

Durbin described a scenario in which a Jewish man was turned down for a position as a psychoanalyst at a Methodist Children’s Home because of his religion for a post funded by the federal government.

Summing up the provision as a religious test, Durbin called it a direct violation of the Constitution.

Durbin admitted the issue has not gotten much attention, due to more pressing issues like Medicare and the War on Terrorism. This was all the more evident, Durbin said, when news reporters and audience members would only ask questions about the Medicare bill currently on the floor in the Senate during question-and-answer sessions.

Those interested in the topic of church and state believed Durbin had made a convincing argument against the current administration’s leniency towards religion.

“I think Senator Durbin made a sound argument,” said Jacqui Sanders, a member of KAM. “I think it’s an important issue because it’s dangerous to infringe on civil rights in the name of religion because it’s reprehensible.”

KAM Isaiah Israel will continue its series on the separation of church and state with a social action weekend next February that will focus on the First Amendment rights. The weekend will include study sessions on the Constitution and debates about religious freedom in the post-September 11 era. Organizers hope to have an official from the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives participate in the debates.