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Jewish Organizations to Work out Strategy and Policy to Deal with Effects of the Equal Access Law

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The National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council (NJCRAC), representing a wide range of II national Jewish organizations and III local Jewish Community Relations Councils, is arranging for seminars in eight cities to work out policy and strategy at the local level for dealing with the effects of the newly-enacted equal access law, Albert Chernin, NJCRAC executive vice chairman, reported today.

The proposal, approved by the Senate last May, and approved 337-77 by the House in a second vote on the measure yesterday, would permit religious groups to hold meetings in public schools but only before and after regular class hours.

Since President Reagan, at his Tuesday night press conference, listed the measure as one of six he particularly wanted adopted by Congress before adjournment, his signature is assured.

Chernin told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency today that the NJCRAC planned to hold a consultation in New York City on September 9 with the American Jewish Congress, to coordinate the eight regional conferences.

The AJCongress, in a statement denouncing the House action, said it would “carry the fight to the courts to have this legistlation invalidated.” An AJCongress spokesman told the JTA it was too early to determine how such a fight would be implemented.

Many Jewish officials questioned by the JTA noted that one of the problems involved was that the issue would not be joined until the 1984-85 school year begins, and planned monitoring started of such public access by church groups would indicate whether fears of Jewish groups of proselytizing of Jewish school children materialized.

PLANS TO CHALLENGE LAW’S CONSTITUTIONALITY

Rabbi Henry Michaelman, executive vice president of the Synagogue Council of America, told the JTA that the SCA’s six rabbinical and congregational organizations, Orthodox, Conservative and Reform, “regretted” the new law and that the SCA planned to challenge its constitutionality.

A commitment to “closely monitor” how this “controversial law” is implemented and readiness “to challenge unconstitutional practices that may grow out of its administration” was made in a statement for the American Jewish Committee by its president, Howard Friedman.

He called the measure “a sharp departure from Congress’s traditional caution and concern that religious liberty and separation of church and state not be tampered with.” The Committee said the measure was “open to abuse by those who proselytize and seek to impose their religious preferences upon others. It would even allow extremist hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi party to gain access to the public schools.”

Chernin said the eight regional meetings would be held in Hartford on September 13; Houston, September 19; Atlanta, September 20; Los Angeles, October 2; Philadelphia, October 3; Chicago, October 8; Columbus, Ohio, October 9; and in Miami, October 24.

Chernin said the number of Jewish communities, through Jewish community relations councils and similar local organizations, to be represented were: 20 in Hartford; 19 in Houston; 10 in Atlanta; 20 in Los Angeles; 30 in Philadelphia; 18 in Los Angeles; 10 in Miami; and 15 in Columbus.

Chernin said the equal access legislation would be one of several problems in church-state relations affecting Jews to be discussed and analyzed at the eight regional consultations. He said that the equal access measure would be examined in terms of policy and stategy.

Chernin added that the consultation gatherings were expected to produce guidelines for local community relations councils and similar groups to aid them in responding to any abuses of the new law in schools in their cities.

Monitoring schools is one of the strategies the eight consultations are expected to examine and approve for use at the local level to determine whether abuses occurred and how court action should be taken if that step was deemed necessary by the local Jewish community relations groups.

CITES ‘THE ONLY BRIGHT SPOT’

Friedman also said, in the AJCommittee statement, that “the only bright spot in this rather disturbing picture of Congressional action is that, even as Congress was considering such radical legislation, two federal courts of appeal, in Georgia and Pennsylvania, rendered decisions in two cases that struck down as unconstitutional public school religious activities that are very similar to those authorized by the equal access legislation.”

However, an attorney specializing in constitutional law, who asked that his name not be used, said there were significant differences in the Georgia and Pennsy vania laws, compared to the new equal access law.

Other Jewish organizations reacting to the House action included the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, International B’nai B’rith, and Agudath Israel.

FEARS EXPRESSED BY JEWISH GROUPS

Seymour Reich, chairman of the ADL civil rights committee, said, in a statement, that “under the guise of free expression for students, the bill will open our public schoold doors to religious and cult groups, some of which use high pressure proselytizing techniques” and that the measure “could open to racist and extremist organizations the opportunity to operate in our public schools.”

Gerald Kraft, president of B’nai B’rith, denounced approval of the new measure and said it would turn the nation’s schools “into religious battlegrounds where our children will be the only victims.” He called the measure “a backdoor way of returning prayer to the public schools” and added that it took “a large chunk out of the constitutional wall separating church and st state.”

David Zweibel, director of government affairs of Agudath Israel, called the measure “ill-conceived and dangerous.” He, too, expressed fears of missionizing activities on public school premises. Zweibel made a special point of stressing the “distinction” between Agudath Israel opposition to the equal access measure and its support of legislatively-approved “school prayer initiatives where there are built-in and iron-clad guarantees that the prayer would indeed be non-denominational in form and character.”

Jewish organizational opinion, outside the Orthodox agencies, continues to be one of strong oppsition to any federal, or local law, permitting prayer in the public schools.

Such a law, repeatedly debated but never approved despite Reagan’s strong support, was introduced this morning and approved in the House. A source told the JTA that the new version has no definition of what such prayers should contain or exclude, being “completely vague” on that critical point.

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