Bushs Jesus Day declaration makes some Jews squirm

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The Texan governor signed a proclamation calling June 10, 2000, Jesus Day in the Lone Star State. The American Jewish Congress said the proclamation violates the "spirit and intention of the First Amendment of the Constitution."

Bush has previously been criticized for his remarks that only Christians go to heaven and for naming Jesus as the political philosopher with whom he most identified.

The principal problem with declaring Jesus Day "is not that it acknowledges the important civic contributions of a particular faith, but that it assumes the profound regard in which the teachings and person of Jesus Christ are held by the Christian community are the norm," said Phil Baum, executive director for the AJCongress.

AJCongress notes that while such proclamations have become "customary and routine" — saying that Congress and many states have, for instance, issued proclamations commemorating the life and teachings of the late Lubavitch Rebbe Menachem Schneerson — "all such statements are offensive and erode the protection afforded minority beliefs" by the First Amendment.

A spokesperson for Bush's office provided a number of examples of other recent Bush proclamations concerning religion, including honoring the 100th anniversary of the Baha'i faith in North America and the 300th anniversary of the founding of the Khalsa, a Sikhs community.

Bush also has signed proclamations declaring Honor Israel Day, a Holocaust remembrance week and a day to honor the Austin Chabad House.

A campaign spokesman said that while Bush is "sensitive" to the AJCongress' concerns, "he does not fully share them."

"The governor recognizes the importance of the separation of church and state," said Ari Fleischer. But he said "it is a long American tradition" and "an appropriate function for governors to issue proclamations honoring groups both religious and secular in nature for important events, adding, "It doesn't mean the governor endorses those causes."

This year was the 10th annual March for Jesus, but the first year its organizers called the date of the march Jesus Day.

The event, which originated in Austin, Texas, in 1991, has since spread throughout the United States and more than 170 countries.

The march began as a celebration of unity to bring all Christians, regardless of denomination, together in worship, said Paul Sanchez, who with his wife, Kathy, serves as central Texas state representative for March for Jesus USA and wrote a letter to Bush requesting a proclamation.

Bush's proclamation stated that "throughout the world, people of all religions recognize Jesus Christ as an example of love, compassion, sacrifice and service."

It also urges "all Texans to answer the call to serve those in need. By volunteering their time, energy or resources to helping others, adults and youngsters follow Christ's message of love and service in thought and deed."

AJCongress called the proclamation "a recent and egregious example" of the common practice by elected officials "to seek to accommodate the religious view of their constituents by issuing proclamations endorsing or commemorating the view or practices of various sectarian groups or denominations."

The National Jewish Democratic Council said the Jesus Day proclamation is another reason to worry about Bush's respect for the First Amendment.

"The fact that Gov. Bush affixed his signature and the seal of the state of Texas to a proclamation establishing 'Jesus Day' demonstrates the willingness to place the imprimatur of government literally on one faith," said Ira Forman, NJDC's executive director.

"When taken together" with "Bush's own statements supporting school prayer and the public posting of religious symbols," continued Forman, "it is one further example that the meaning of separation of church and state as we've understood it over the last 40 years would be dramatically changed in a Bush administration."

But Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, found the AJCongress criticism troubling.

"This is again a sad example of the American Jewish Congress and other organizations showing their anti-Christian bias," Brooks said. "The Jewish community has to stop beating up on Christians for belief in their faith."

Brooks also said the criticism of Bush was "politically motivated," wondering why Vice President Al Gore — who has said that he asks himself "What Would Jesus Do?" when he faces a tough decision — has not taken heat for his own public professions of Christian faith.

In addition, Brooks asked why AJCongress had not spoken out when, for instance, Congress issued the proclamation commemorating Schneerson.

Matthew Dorf, director of government relations for the AJCongress, noted that his group's statement did specifically single out the rebbe proclamation as improper and said that AJCongress would be "more vigilant" in the future in watching for similar proclamations.