"... the separation between church and state is a protection for the public square, but also a protection for houses of worship," says Rabbi Jonathan Singer of Congregation Emanu-El in S.F., seen here at an event in Nov. 2017.
"... the separation between church and state is a protection for the public square, but also a protection for houses of worship," says Rabbi Jonathan Singer of Congregation Emanu-El in S.F., seen here at an event in Nov. 2017.

Jewish groups lobby to keep U.S. rule banning pulpit political endorsements

Jewish organizations nationwide, including at least one from the Bay Area, have gone on record saying they prefer the wall of separation between church and state to remain as high and impenetrable as possible.

Fifty-five Jewish nonprofits and religious institutions took a stand earlier this month against weakening a provision in the U.S. tax code that prohibits 501(c)(3) nonprofits, including churches, mosques and synagogues, from endorsing, opposing or contributing to political candidates.

The so-called Johnson Amendment has been on the federal books since 1954. However, its repeal has been written into the proposed Republican tax reform bill now under consideration by Congress. A vote is expected in the coming weeks.

The amendment has come under fire in recent months, largely from evangelical Christians and their congressional allies, who argue that it restricts the free-speech rights of religious groups.

On Nov. 8, the Jewish groups signed a letter to the leaders of the House Ways and Means Committee, which said, in part, “Charitable nonprofits and houses of worship can only be successful if we maintain public trust in our integrity and commitment to mission. Politicizing them for the benefit of politicians and partisan donors would destroy that trust.”

The Jewish Federation of Silicon Valley was a local signatory to the letter. But other Bay Area Jewish leaders and organizations are weighing in as well.

“The Jewish Community Relations Council has been a very visible supporter of the Johnson Amendment for several reasons,” noted Silicon Valley JCRC director Diane Fisher. “As a minority group, Jewish interests have always been served by a strong separation of religion and state. It’s not hard to imagine the religious liberty that could be implemented by candidates whose campaigns are funded by certain fundamentalist religious groups.”

For many Bay Area rabbis, the controversy reinforces their belief that the role of houses of worship is to create a welcoming spiritual space, one that is pluralistic and encourages healthy civic discourse.

“To me, the Johnson Amendment clarifies that the separation between church and state is a protection for the public square, but also a protection for houses of worship,” says Senior Rabbi Jonathan Singer of San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El. “Attempts to change it ignore that houses of worship are centers of spiritual and social communities that value a diverse membership who need to come together, not be pushed apart.”

Rabbi Mendy Cohen of Chabad of Sacramento agrees, noting, “Synagogues should be a safe haven to serve God. Everyone should feel comfortable and everyone should be embraced. By [endorsing] politicians, you can push people away.”

Many spiritual leaders say the amendment helps frame how they can speak from the pulpit, allowing them to address and advocate for various issues without crossing the line into political endorsements.

Synagogues should be a safe haven to serve God…. By [endorsing] politicians, you can push people away.

Singer has talked about immigration issues, for example, even protesting at the airport when the president’s travel ban against Muslims went into effect in late January. He also advocates for gay and lesbian rights, pointing out, “These are not Democrat or Republican issues. People can profoundly disagree, and they do. That’s a dialogue based in values.”

Rabbi David Booth of Congregation Kol Emeth, a Conservative synagogue in Palo Alto, and Rabbi Joel Landau of San Francisco’s Modern Orthodox Adath Israel, speak from the bimah about such issues as gun control, euthanasia, homosexuality and health care.

“Educational opportunities are a great role for a synagogue,” Booth said. “Political advocacy on Shabbat is not.”

Landau concurred: “My main concern has to do with what is appropriate and inappropriate within the context of a synagogue. Forgetting the legal amendments of Johnson, is that what people come to synagogue for?”

Singer said he is concerned about people making even small adjustments in terms of what is acceptable in the public arena.

“The government should not commandeer the religious square in an attempt to dominate it,” he opines. “We are not a Christian, Jewish, Muslim or secular country. We are the American people.”

President Donald Trump got the ball rolling in May when he signed an executive order to reverse the amendment’s restrictions and “defend the freedom of religion and speech.” While Jewish groups largely opposed the executive order, at least one — the Orthodox Union — applauded it. The Orthodox community’s signature also was absent from the November letter to Congress. Even so, Singer notes, “[The Orthodox] are also a diverse group. You have to be aware of looking at them from a monolithic perspective.”

In terms of other religious groups, a February survey conducted by the National Association of Evangelicals found that nearly 90 percent of evangelical leaders “do not think pastors should endorse politicians from the pulpit.”

However, a 2016 study by the Pew Research Center found that 28 percent of black Protestants reported hearing their clergy speak in support of Hillary Clinton during the 2016 campaign, while about 20 percent reported hearing their ministers denounce Donald Trump.

“We believe that the most strategic way to advance a perspective is by engaging across party lines and across all faith traditions,” said Abby Porth, executive director of the San Francisco-based JCRC. Repeal of the amendment “would create greater division and polarization in our society, and disable thoughtful debate.”

Singer puts it this way: “Those who say [the Johnson Amendment] is not a real limit, that we should say what we feel, do not understand the nuances. People are longing for more spirituality in their lives. If politics becomes an extension of the religious square, we can’t talk to people’s religious souls. We will simply become a blue shul or a red shul.”

Elissa Einhorn
Elissa Einhorn

Elissa Einhorn began her writing career in the Bronx at the age of 8. She earned a master’s degree in communications and journalism 20 years later. While Elissa worked for non-profits her entire career, including as a Jewish communal professional, she now enjoys working for herself as a freelance writer. Still, her most treasured role is that of ima (mom) to twin daughters who she is (finally) happy to count among her friends.