Secular healing! Club finds non-church venue for political forum

The Brooklyn Paper

Talk about separating church from state.

Just two days after The Brooklyn Paper reported last week that City Council candidate Isaac Abraham would not attend a political meeting in a church basement because of his religious views, the group behind the forum has found a new — entirely secular — venue.

The Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats had planned to hold its April 23 endorsement meeting in the cellar of the Park Slope United Methodist Church, but Abraham — an Orthodox Jew and longtime activist in Williamsburg’s Satmar community who is vying to succeed Councilman David Yassky (D–Williamsburg) — said that his faith barred him from entering the building.

“I asked my rabbi and [he said] it was better that I not go,” Abraham told The Brooklyn Paper earlier this week.

Abraham was criticized by club President Lucy Koteen, who suggested that Abraham could not represent a secular community if he “has so many restrictions on his life.”

“When you are on City Council, you have to go to funerals — if someone gets shot, are you not going to go because it’s a Catholic church?” Koteen asked.

But in the ensuing controversy, Koteen’s group found a new location for the forum, which will test the six candidates fighting to win the 33rd Council District that covers Brooklyn Heights, Greenpoint and parts of Williamsburg, Boerum Hill, and Park Slope.

“We respect the diverse populations and we want to hear from all candidates,” Koteen said on Friday. “We respect anybody who puts themselves out to there to run as a public servant, and we want to hear from all voices.”

The endorsement meeting will take place at an Eighth Street venue — fittingly named Camp Friendship — that is down the block from the Park Slope United Methodist Church.

For his part, Abraham said that he is eager to show Brownstone Brooklyn his political views next month.

“I will attend and make my position and platform clear to the people,” he said.Camp Friendship — that is down the block from the Park Slope United Methodist Church.

For his part, Abraham said that he is eager to show Brownstone Brooklyn his political views next month.

“I will attend and make my position and platform clear to the people,” he said.

Reader Feedback

Atheist from Park Slope says:
While Mr. Abraham and his supporters play the "religious intolerance" card, he refuses to enter a pre-school that happens to be housed in the basement of a church, in which CBID has held its endorsement meetings for more than a decade, free of controversy? Where's the tolerance in that?
March 20, 2009, 7:39 pm
Pat from Bay Ridge says:
He refuses to enter the church because his religion prohibits it. I don't think it's too much to ask to follow the Constitution and bar what amounts to a "religious test" for office.
March 20, 2009, 7:55 pm
Atheist Too from South Brooklyn says:
I'm also an atheist, but I don't see a problem.

Apparently, a nonreligious venue WAS possible. It wasn't an outrageous accomodation, no more outrageous than "accommodating" people's religious holidays.
It respected the guy's conscience, just as I'd hope my NON-religious conscience would be respected if an issue arose (say, if I were required to do something that was no big deal to others, but that - to me - might go against my beliefs or give the impression that I endorsed a religious viewpoint).

Religion is an emotionally charged issue. Some nonreligious people atheists are averse to meeting in religious sites, even community-ish basements. Same goes for some religious people. Some people (not just candidates) might be uncomfortable attending meetings, at all, in those places.

As long as there's a logistically neutral solution, what's the problem?
March 20, 2009, 8:18 pm
Atheist Too from South Brooklyn says:
PS - Since "Atheist" raised the issue: Atheists are as varied as "believers" are. We include everything from those who say "there's no god or gods, and I don't care beyond that," to people who care FAR beyond that - whose atheism includes complex ethics, and who strongly believe that religion is divisive, promotes injustice, impedes positive change, or promotes magical thinking.

Regardless: Most of us stifle our views, to be good-sport citizens -- so we tolerate tons of generic Deity invocations and choirs at community events; civic events on religious turf, or with clergy speakers and honorees; and political speakers who invoke religion.
We're a minority, and aren't into proselytizing - but it gets wearing to do all of the "tolerating" ... esp. when it's implied (or even stated) that "all of us here believe in God," or that "real" Americans are religious, or that we have to go along to get along. (Imagine if - to participate in civic life -- a Jew, Hindu or Buddhist had to constantly attend Christian-themed events with prayers in Jesus' name. Because that's how it feels.)

That's why many of us (a) DO understand conscience issues like this, (b) can spot tacit or unthinking "religious tests" a mile away, and (c) realize the importance of good civic manners, so that ALL feel welcome and comfortable, and no one is an outie, or prevented from competing, due to belief or nonbelief. Period.
March 20, 2009, 10:20 pm
sam from downtown says:
Judaism does not prohibit a Jew from entering a church basement. it is nowhere to be found in the Torah.
March 20, 2009, 11:33 pm
Eddie from Brooklyn says:
A lot of Jewish practice-custom-observance, or elaboration thereon, isn't found in the Torah, just as a lot of Christian practice-custom-observance, etcetera, isn't found in the New Testament. Both religions rely heavily on some form of tradition or oral law or equivalent.
In both religions, the particular set of practices-customs-observances you adhere to depends on which school of belief, denomination or sect you adhere to.
Arguing about religion is like trying to tell people who they 'should' fall in love with or saying that their favorite color is 'wrong.'
March 20, 2009, 11:55 pm
Galahad from England says:
"Arguing about religion is like trying to tell people who they 'should' fall in love with or saying that their favorite color is 'wrong.'"

It's blue.

No, yel..................
March 21, 2009, 1:13 am
K. from Sunset Park says:
If he's elected, I can't wait to hear what his Rabbi will require him to do in the peoples name. Theocracy is so much better than democracy and tolerance, don't you think?
March 21, 2009, 2:29 pm
Hal from Red Hook says:
There's no guarantee that ANYONE's religious beliefs won't interfere with what's done "in the people's name." Fact that they don't talk about it doesn't mean it's a non-issue.
March 21, 2009, 3:53 pm
K from Sunset Park says:
That's true, Hal. The way you judge a man is by his actions, not his words. Isaacs actions show him to be a bigot. I'm really appalled that Isaac was supported in his bigotry by the City Council. So is it now the position of the City Council that Methodists are unclean and cannot be associated with? I sincerely hope that whoever attends the endorsement meeting put that question directly to each Council member, including Isaac. It's insane that such a question should have to be asked, but how else to interpret the mans actions?
March 21, 2009, 6:03 pm
Hal from Red Hook says:
Gee, K ... if only we could always find actions to judge by!
Many religions, or group-ettes within religions, have rules 'n' regs to keep members in the fold ... things like "we're the only true thing," "everything but Us is bad or damned," "don't go to non-'Us' places," "claim the U.S. for Jesus," rigid views, authoritarianism, blahblah.

... but they usually keep a lid on it. We only find out when something 3D-Technicolor happens ... like back when one lutheran group suspended a bishop because 2 weeks after 9/11, he took part in a big NY interfaith service with jewish, hindu, sikh & muslim clergy ... and his church said it was sinful to be in a service with all these 'pagans.'

OR, we don't know how religiosity will translate into action. People can deviate (surprisingly, and for good or ill) from their religion's 'line' on public issues.
Or they can keep lip zipped, then get elected and push some faith agenda ... or make decisions based on some religion's marching orders or on alleged personal revelations from God ... but disguise it (in a wink-wink way) as 'social good.'

Thus, we often don't know what's up, since there are no actions to go by until after the fact ... and it's 'not done,' and discriminatory, to evaluate people base solely on religious belief, rather than on actions or record on the issues.

To his credit ... Abraham didn't hide his views and quietly avoid the meeting. Avoidance would've had little effect on his chances, since it looks like his campaign has big problems and odds are hugely against him. And going public wasn't the best p.r. for him (though I'm sure he has supporters or got more via hus stance). But at least he was principled and open, and also gave voters fair notice regarding religion's impact, and license to question it.

Finally ... like others, I disagree with Abraham, but think that political meetings should be in unreligious locations. Historically, religion has been a big source of, and-or alibi for, awfulness. Some religio-cultural groups have been horrifically treated by others (including Christians v. Christians), w/lasting trauma, and even some other folks are very uneasy in 'holy places,' for valid very personal or conscience reasons. It's about their personal experience, not intolerance of some belief, and I have no right to tell them that they should be good citizens and get over it, since some meeting isn't religious, and is "only" in a basement.
So ... religious-anything just adds gratuitous conflict, the issue is bound to recur, and you don't know who you're alienating or leaving out - because they don't show up.
March 21, 2009, 11:46 pm
Atheist from Park Slope says:
It should be pointed out that CBID has been meeting in the secular pre-school space in the BASEMENT of the United Methodist Church for a decade or more, and has held endorsement meetings there each year, without incident.

CBID is a political club; it has no official standing. Its influence comes through its effective grassroots work on behalf of the candidates it endorses. Membership is open to ANYONE who will pay its modest dues, and all dues-paying members are able to vote on endorsements. Candidates who can convince its members to endorse them certainly benefit.
March 22, 2009, 11:22 am
SecularJew from BrooklynHeights says:
We don't have to vote for him. However, we do have to respect his religious beliefs.
March 22, 2009, 12:33 pm
Ari from Brooklyn Heights says:
To Sam, you're wrong, a Jew cannot enter any church structure, including its basement.

In point of fact, the Shelchan Aruch - the Law Books upon which all Jewish law is applied, prohibits a Jew from even benefiting from the shade the building's shadow puts on a street on a hot day.
March 22, 2009, 1:21 pm
Christianesque agnostic from Slope says:
Atheist from Park Slope says --- "CBID has been meeting in the secular pre-school space in the BASEMENT of the United Methodist Church for a decade or more, and has held endorsement meetings there each year, without incident."

That's cool, but a lot of changeworthy things continue without incident until somebody pipes up. I definitely know people [not even hasidic or jewish] who deeply oppose having things like this in religious buildings, no matter which room. It's not from antireligionism, either. They want a clear line between public and religious things. They think that too many public groups meet in churchish spaces [which definitely is true in some places], that it implies some norm or endorsement [though it's not so, image matters], or can be a turnoff to some people [and you don't know who, because, like Hal said, 'they don't show up']. They even feel this way about public meetings in their own churches.
A few of them might be sensitized to this BECAUSE they're churchgoers and their churches have changed traditions that went on forever without incident, but left out some silent minority --- like giving alcoholic-only communion wine [so 12-steppers had to skip it], not being disabled-accessible, referring to God as a 'he,' or having oldtime hymns and prayers that, these days, came across as smug or quasi-offensive.

Anyway --- it's hard to believe that a Democratic club wouldn't 'get' all of this, or would be so cloutless that it couldn't find a non-religious room.
March 22, 2009, 2:57 pm
Erik from Crown Heights says:
If it was in a Unitarian church, would it have mattered?

What do Unitarians believe in, any way?
March 22, 2009, 6:05 pm
CBID exec committee member from Park Slope says:
In response to Christianesque agnostic: we rent the preschool space for our meetings because it is convenient and cheap. In fact, the cheapest public meeting spaces available in most communities are in houses of worship, because they are not-for-profit organizations. We don't get our meeting spaces through "clout", we rent them just like any other community organization.

We run our organization on a modest budget, but once we were made aware of the situation, we arranged another meeting space in less that 24 hours. This was done entirely at our expense, which includes both the rental on our usual meeting space, which will be sitting empty the night of the meeting, and the additional cost of renting another, costlier space to accommodate Mr. Abraham.

I invite all the readers of this conversation to attend the meeting in question, which, like all our meetings, is open to the general public without charge. We welcome your participation. Should you then decide to join our club, your very modest dues will help defray the costs of future alternative meeting spaces, should they be necessary.

Mr. Abraham did not return CBID's invitation with any request for a change of venue, nor any explanation of his problem. We only learned of his unwillingness to enter our meeting space when we were contacted by this publication for comment. Had he done us the courtesy of contacting us directly, he would have found us perfectly willing to accommodate him.
March 23, 2009, 12:37 pm
Christianesque agnostic from Slope says:
In response to CBID exec: 'clout' doesn't just mean armtwisting and freebies. It also means having a base of friends and supporters who can provide, have access to, or get some deal on affordable space. Every small political or advocacy group faces this at some point, but they cope, even though they're often marginal and have budgets that are subliminal [not just modest]. It's surprising that a venerable, high profile organization like CBID has no equivalent Plan-B skills.

On one hand, Abraham is at fault if he didn't explain his issue to CBID.
On the other, if CBID would have been "perfectly willing" to relocate, it should've told its president. Because in the original story here, "CBID President Lucy Koteen, who organized the event," was quoted as saying:
"'How can someone who has so many restrictions on his life represent us? .... When you are on City Council, you have to go to funerals — if someone gets shot, are you not going to go because it’s a Catholic church?”
That doesn't sound like 'perfectly willingness' to me. It cast aspersions on Abraham for HAVING a problem. It also implied that the relocation was grudgingly done to [sigh!] placate a pest who was unqualified anyway.
That impolitic loose-lippiness, and level of 'willingness,' would give pause to anyone else who felt impelled to challenge the status quo, even for meat 'n' potatoes nonreligious reasons.
March 23, 2009, 2:22 pm
Christianesque agnostic from Slope says:
To Erik from Crown Heights --- Unitarian beliefs are at
... but are nonmandatory/optional.

My understanding [as a christianesque agnostic] is that the no-church rule includes any non-jewish place of worship.
March 23, 2009, 2:31 pm
Proud Brooklyn Jew from Prospect Heights says:
My problem is that Abraham didn't bother to tell CBID about the location problem. He told the press instead. It sounds like he's more concerned about news coverage than religious or etiquette considerations.

CBID was perfectly willing to find a new location speedily for the forum. I hope he apologizes to the club for not contacting them with his concern, and thanks them for acting so quickly to find a location good for everyone.
March 23, 2009, 3:47 pm
Dav from Brooklyn says:
The only think we can say GO ISACC GO…he is the men. He will represent everybody equally. He is not playing ‘’politics game’ like a regular politician. Enough is enough!! Its time to be real and be the men!! He never takes NO for an answer!! He is very open minded for the last 35 years serving the community and helping people and never will tolerate discrimination against any one's religion, color, gender or sex orientation. So we all say GO ISAAC GO!!!
March 23, 2009, 3:59 pm
Baffled Buddhist from Bklyn Heights says:
Some relevant facts aren't clear in these stories:

Did he just plan to skip the meeting, not explain, and avoid publicity? Did this hit the spotlight only because the media wondered about it, NOT because he was raising a ruckus?

Or did he intentionally leave CBID in the dark, then complain loudly and pursue media attention?

Those details make a big difference!

I'm also kind of surprised that a club wouldn't take the initiative and find out why a candidate was skipping a very important endorsement meeting. It seems like a material issue, and like something you'd want to know about if you wanted more participation. Unless you already decided that some candidates weren't worth hearing.
March 23, 2009, 9:39 pm

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