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Sermons, Politics, and the Constitution

Sermons, Politics, and the Constitution

Last Wednesday, the Washington Post wrote about the topics most clergy members discuss from the pulpit as a way to illustrate that the issues most associated with communities of faith - reproductive rights and LGBT rights/same-sex marriage, due much in part to the Religious Right - is not what is actually happening on the ground.

A table showing the issues clergy speak about the most

This chart clearly shows that abortion and homosexuality are among the most discussed topics, but it is encouraging to see that economic justice and voter participation - key components of a strong democracy - register the highest.

However, two topics that are the most striking are “government policies restricting religious liberty” and “president candidates” because of they could mean for church-state separation and religious freedom.

The Reform Jewish Movement has long taken the position that the rights affirmed in the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment (the Establishment Clause, church-state separation; the Free Exercise Clause, religious freedom), are best for both religious communities and the government. A 1965 resolution from the Union for Reform states,

“While as citizens, of course, we accept and respect the laws of the land, including those laws which include provisions as to which we were and are apprehensive, we re-affirm our long-established position that the principle of separation of church and state is best for both church and state and is indispensable for the preservation of that spirit of religious liberty which is a unique blessing of American democracy. This principle is shared by forward-looking elements of all faiths.”

We support robust religious freedom rights, though we are concerned when religious freedom is used to categorically challenge civil rights laws and protections. We support robust church-state separation, knowing that even though, for example, houses of worship taking government money could benefit the community in the short-term, in the long-term is detrimental to both church and state (in addition to being prohibited by the Constitution).

Church-state separation extends to a prohibition on politicking from the pulpit. Due our deep respect for and commitment to religious freedom and separation between church and state, houses of worship and clergy are accorded numerous rights (tax exemption a key example), but that means must remain non-partisan at all times. As explained in the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism's elections Dos and Don’ts for Congregations, houses of worship can host candidate forums and voter registration drives, clergy can discuss numerous social justice topics, but they are not allowed to endorse candidates from the pulpit. This protects houses of worship and fosters a welcoming environment for congregations of all views and backgrounds.

Because the data reported on in the Washington Post article does not give the context for how these topics are being discussed by clergy, calling into question the constitutionality of these sermons isn’t really on the table. It does, however, serve as an important reminder of how our fundamental freedoms of church-state separation and religious free exercise come into play in a real, tangible way.

Sarah Greenberg is the Assistant Legislative Director at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, where she was an Eisendrath Legislative Assistant in 2013-2014. Sarah graduated in 2013 from Cornell University, and is originally from New York City.

Sarah Greenberg
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