By Leon Cohen and Andrea Waxman, Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle
Some 33 Christian pastors in 22 states — including one in West Bend, according to an Associated Press report — recently attacked what they believe to be restraints on freedom of speech in religious institutions during elections.
But their effort receives little sympathy from a group of Wisconsin congregational rabbis interviewed by The Chronicle last week.
The pastors participated in a project of the Arizona-based Alliance Defense Fund, which the AP described as a conservative legal group.
The pastors devoted their sermons on Sept. 28 — which they called “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” — to endorsing candidates in the coming presidential election.
They did this to protest Internal Revenue Service rules instituted by Congress in 1954. These rules strip tax-exempt status from non-profit organizations, including religious institutions — and organizations like The Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle — that endorse political candidates.
ADF contends, according to a release on its Web site, that these rules violate First Amendment freedom of speech rights of clergy; and the Pulpit Freedom Sunday project seeks to provoke a legal challenge to the rules.
“I think they are wrong,” said Rabbi Shaina Bacharach, spiritual leader of Congregation Cnesses Israel (Conservative) in Green Bay.
The IRS rules help to preserve lines separating church and state, and “I don’t like to see those boundaries crossed,” she said.
In fact, “I think Congress is doing us a favor” with these rules, said Rabbi Shlomo Levin of Lake Park Synagogue (Orthodox) in Milwaukee.
“Politics is polarizing and the clergy’s role should be to tone down the debate,” he said. “We should be humble and admit that it’s difficult to make good decisions.”
Rabbi E. Daniel Danson of Mount Sinai Congregation (Reform) in Wausau added, “When religious institutions move in lockstep with a party, they lose their voice.”
Moreover, just as certain Talmud rulings “build a fence around” Torah laws, so do these IRS rules “build a fence around the Constitution,” Danson said.
Moreover, at least one rabbi would maintain silence about candidates even if the IRS rules were changed to allow religious institutions to endorse them.
Rabbi Shmaya Shmotkin, spiritual leader of the Chabad Lubavitch-affiliated The Shul (Orthodox) in Bayside, said, “It’s been a long-standing policy of Lubavitch, instituted by the Rebbe, that as an institution we are not to be involved in politics.”
“The reason is the way we view our role: to enhance and serve every single Jew, regardless of ideology or political leanings,” he said.
“Anything that could potentially deter from that mission or make someone with a different view uncomfortable is in our view detrimental.” Therefore, “even if by law we were able to, we wouldn’t do it.”