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Rabbis sign open letter opposing federal requirement for jobs grant

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Faith leaders gather in Toronto on Jan. 25 to present an open letter opposing the federal government's requirement that organizations wishing to receive a summer jobs grant sign a statement in support of abortion rights.

Rabbis Chaim Strauchler and Reuben Poupko do not know of any Jewish institutions that are being affected by the government’s requirement that organizations affirm their support for a woman’s right to choose, as a condition of receiving federal funds for summer job programs. Yet both clergymen signed an open letter from a broad spectrum of faith leaders who oppose the stipulation and are asking the government to amend it.

It’s a matter of principle, the rabbis say, as it violates the fundamental right of religious organizations not to be compelled to attest to something they do not believe in. What’s more, Rabbi Strauchler believes it’s the beginning of a slippery slope, as no one knows where this might lead and what people and organizations may be forced to say in order to receive federal funding in the future.

Rabbis Strauchler and Poupko are two of several Jewish leaders who signed the letter, which was addressed to Labor Minister Patricia Hajdu.

The letter was presented at a news conference held by faith leaders from the Roman Catholic, evangelical Christian, Jewish and Muslim communities at St. Benedict’s Church in Toronto on Jan. 25.

“We the undersigned leaders of diverse faith communities and organizations in Canada call on the prime minister and the government of Canada to amend the Canada Summer Jobs guidelines and application process so that it does not compel agreement or belief, and allows religious organizations to stay true to their communal identity and beliefs. The new application requires each organization to give non-negotiable and unqualified affirmation of certain beliefs held by the current government,” the letter states.

READ: ARE ABORTIONS KOSHER IN JUDAISM?

The letter goes on to say that many organizations will be deemed ineligible for the summer job program, because they won’t attest that their core mandate aligns with the government’s position.

“These groups are being denied equal access to a government benefit solely because of their religious beliefs or conscientious objection,” the letter states.

Dozens of religious leaders signed the letter, including Toronto’s Vaad Harabonim, an Orthodox council of rabbis, the Rabbinical Council of America, an organization that represents Orthodox rabbis, and Rabbi Daniel Korobkin of the Beth Avraham Yoseph of Toronto Congregation.

Four rabbis who are executive members of the Canadian Rabbinic Caucus, an organization associated with the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), also signed the letter: Rabbi Jonathan Infeld of Congregation Beth Israel in Vancouver; Rabbi Poupko of Congregation Beth Israel Beth Aharon in Montreal; Rabbi Baruch Frydman-Kohl of the Beth Tzedec Congregation in Toronto; and Rabbi Debra Landsberg of Temple Emanu-El in Toronto.

While the Canadian Rabbinic Caucus is linked to CIJA, CIJA itself has not taken a position on the issue, Rabbi Poupko said.

Rabbi Chaim Strauchler

There has been no federal law dealing with abortion since the Supreme Court of Canada struck down the previous law in the 1988.

Rabbi Poupko said he had been in contact with government officials, who said that the requirement was added because recipients of federal funds had engaged in lobbying against abortion last year. The government “is not wrong to address the problem,” he said, but its solution “to ask for a theological litmus test is upsetting to many.… This is not a question of pro-life, or choice. This is a principled issue of a litmus test of faith.”

Rabbi Strauchler said that while the requirement does not affect him personally, religious liberty and diversity of opinion is at stake.

Furthermore, the government is using the power of the purse to “selectively assign funds to people they like and not give it to people they don’t like. Who knows what issues government will require us to attest to, to get government funding. It’s a real slippery slope here,” he said.

As a minority, Jews should be concerned about the government’s attempt to impose its political views on others, he added.

Meanwhile, representatives of other faith groups told the news conference that they were ready to work with the government to amend the wording of the statement. Cardinal Thomas Collins, the archbishop of Toronto, who represented the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, said that faith groups that provide much-needed services to the poor will be affected by the requirement.

He said it was “not fair” for the government to impose a “wide open ideology test” that applicants for the grant cannot in good conscience accept.

Dave Addison, executive director of the Toronto City Mission, said the organization provides vital programming to communities in need. It was hoping to access $100,000 in federal money, and if it can’t, 16 students won’t have summer jobs and children from disadvantaged communities won’t be able to attend the organization’s summer camp.