Lone Jewish Voice Favors Public Christian Prayer in Key Supreme Court Case

Nathan Lewin Insists 'No Unanimous View' in Community

Dissenting Voice: Prominent Jewish attorney Nathan Lewin is standing in support of public prayer in a case headed to the Supreme Court.
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Dissenting Voice: Prominent Jewish attorney Nathan Lewin is standing in support of public prayer in a case headed to the Supreme Court.

By Nathan Guttman

Published August 14, 2013, issue of August 16, 2013.
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More than two dozen groups and individuals have filed friends-of-court briefs supporting the Town of Greece. They include the federal Department of Justice, which argued for upholding the practice of legislative prayer; members of Congress; 23 state attorneys general, and a group of theologians. Standing out in the list of supporters is Lewin, the lone Jewish voice in support of continuing the town’s Christian prayer.

The brief filed by Lewin reads as much like a talmudic discussion as it does a legal argument. Lewin draws on recent-day sages Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and the late Lubavitcher rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson to make the case that Jewish religion and tradition are not opposed to Christian prayer. “Authentic Jewish attitude toward Christian prayer,” Lewin wrote, “is encouragement, not condemnation.” Lewin also quotes from the books of Genesis, Kings I, Jonah and Isaiah in making the case that Jewish scripture does not include any opposition to non-Jewish prayer.

Another argument presented in Lewin’s brief is that the United States Congress itself has long opened its legislative sessions with a religious prayer and that rabbis have been invited numerous times to deliver the prayer. The first such invitation, he noted, was in 1860, to Rabbi Morris Raphall, who appeared before Congress “piously bedecked in a white tallit and a large velvet skullcap.”

Lewin is well aware of the fact that he is breaking ranks with the organized Jewish community. In fact, that is one of the reasons he filed his brief. “I’m going against the reflexive unthinking mainstream,” he said, referring to major Jewish organizations. “People say. ‘Oh, God, there’s a prayer that says something Christian, so we should oppose it.’”

Lewin, who is 76 and shares a Washington practice with his daughter Alyza, has been at the forefront of church and state battles for decades, always representing a school of thought closer to that of the Orthodox minority in the Jewish community — one that, in general, is more willing to challenge the definition of church and state separation.

A former clerk for Supreme Court justice John Harlan, and a lawyer in Robert F. Kennedy’s Department of Justice, Lewin, whose father was a senior figure in the ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America, has long taken on legal issues relating to Jews and to the Orthodox Jewish community in particular. In 1989 he successfully argued the case of County of Allegheny v. American Civil Liberties Union, in which Chabad of Pittsburgh won the right to keep its 18-foot Hanukkah menorah outside the city-county building. (In the same case, the Supreme Court ruled against presentation of the nativity scene in the county courthouse.)

Lewin also represented Sholom Rubashkin, the former head of Agriprocessors kosher meat plant. Rubashkin was sentenced to 27 years in prison for fraud and money laundering. Lewin called the court decision “the greatest injustice” he has seen in 50 years of practicing law.

More recently, Lewin suffered a loss when the court rejected his attempts to force the Obama administration to register Israel as the birthplace of Americans born in Jerusalem.

As Lewin and other supporters of legislative prayer prepare their court filings in advance of the Town of Greece hearing, opponents, many of them from the organized Jewish community, are rallying their forces against them.


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