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Synagogue Deciding Whether to Contest Court Ruling That Would Deny Civil Rights Laws to Jews

A Washington suburban synagogue is deciding whether to challenge an appellate court ruling that would in effect deny Jewish groups the protection of U.S. civil rights laws.

In a 2 to I ruling Monday, the 4th District Court of Appeals found that the civil rights statutes enacted following the American Civil War for the protection of Black Americans could not be applied to Jews because they do not constitute a race.

The decision confirmed an earlier ruling on the case about a year ago by a federal district court in Maryland that attacks on the property of Jewish groups do not fall within the scope of the civil rights laws.

The suit was filed by the 500-member Conservative Shaare Tefila Congregation of Silver Spring, Maryland, some two years after members found the outside of their temple spray-painted with swastikas, Klu Klux Klan symbols, a skull and crossbones and an array of anti-Semitic slogans.

Charges were pressed in criminal court against eight men, one of whom was convicted of destroying property. But the synagogue decided to pursue the case further by filing for damages under two federal civil rights statutes enacted in the last century. One of the laws prohibits any attempt to interfere with the lawful activity of another person or to deny someone the benefits of law on account of race. The other affords protection of property rights “as is enjoyed by white citizens.”

According to George Mernick, an attorney with Hogan and Hartson, the firm representing Shaare Tefila, the suit had rested on the argument that whether or not Jews constitute a distinct race is irrelevant as long as those who violate their right are motivated by racial prejudice.

A brief prepared by Hogan and Hartson together with an attorney from the Jewish Advocacy Center, formed several years ago to press cases involving anti-Semitic incidents, drew on precedents in which the statutes were found applicable for Hispanic citizens, Mernick said.

But he added that other courts have ruled differently in similar cases, and that Monday’s decision was consistent with those.

While expressing sympathy with the synagogue’s case, the judges rejected in their ruling “a claim of racial discrimination solely on the basis of defendant’s (the person convicted for the crime) perception of a racially distinct group.”

“To do otherwise would permit charges of racial discrimination to arise out of nothing more than the subjective, irrational perceptions of defendants,” the decision stated.

Attorneys will be meeting this week with members of the Congregation to decide whether to petition the same court for another hearing by a full panel of judges or seek a hearing in the Supreme Court.

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