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The God Squad: Go public, but apolitically, with your charity

August 09, 2013|By Rabbi Marc Gellman

Q: What is your view on politics and the church? Our church held a special service recently to rally and support church members planning to attend a political protest at our state legislature. They will protest new or proposed laws they view as hurting the poor.

While I am all in favor of churches performing activities that serve the poor directly, such as providing food, shelter and clothing, I'm uncomfortable with this level of involvement in political activities, even if it serves a good cause. — D., Chapel Hill, NC, via godsquadquestion@aol.com

A: I've been waiting for this question! I think all pious and civic-minded people would agree that there are two values that must be balanced here, and they're both included in the brilliant First Amendment to the Constitution: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."

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As interpreted by generations of court rulings, and as it makes clear in its simple meaning, the two values are the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause.

The first prohibits the government from creating a state religion for America by favoring one religion over another or by imposing religious tests for citizenship. The Free Exercise Clause guarantees that religious citizens will not be prohibited from practicing their religion, and that includes petitioning the government to correct social evils and injustices.

What you and your church must do is respect the limits set by these two clauses and the values they represent. I don't see how petitioning the government to help the poor violates either clause.

You're not asking that only poor Christians be helped, but you are asking that poor people be helped. What your church is doing seems to me to be both permissible and laudatory. You are trying to make America a kinder place for those who sleep in the dust.

I do not understand why people resist the right of religious Americans to petition the government. When the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. asked for an end to racial discrimination, he was doing it as a Christian American, and I don't remember a single person complaining at the time that he was violating the Establishment Clause of the Constitution or doing violence to the separation of church and state because of his role as pastor.

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