Focus on Issues: Hate Crimes, Guns, Religious Freedom Top the Agenda for Returning Congress
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Focus on Issues: Hate Crimes, Guns, Religious Freedom Top the Agenda for Returning Congress

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After a summer marred by anti-Semitic violence, Jewish lobbyists are vowing to push lawmakers to enact stricter laws to combat hate crimes and control guns.

As Congress returns from its August recess, both efforts are likely to garner a high profile, although it remains unclear whether meaningful changes will be adopted.

Ensuring greater protections for free religious practice and maintaining current spending levels for social service programs are also key concerns for the Jewish community on the domestic front, while efforts to contain Iran and secure funding for Israel and the Palestinians to implement the Wye River land- for-peace deal will be the focus of activity in the international arena.

Gun control, meanwhile, is shaping up as the toughest battle.

The Senate has already adopted a juvenile justice bill that would subject individuals purchasing guns at gun shows to background checks, ban the import of magazines with a capacity of more than 10 rounds and require that trigger locks or other safety devices be sold with handguns.

But the House of Representatives, following a fierce lobbying effort by the National Rifle Association, rejected those proposals in June.

While most Jewish activists continue to back those proposals, some are urging Congress to go much further, particularly following the recent spate of deadly assaults across the country, including shooting rampages targeted at Jews in Illinois and California.

One effort, being led by the American Jewish Congress, seeks to build grass- roots support for sweeping federal gun control legislation.

The group hopes to rally the religious community and members of Congress around proposals for requiring all gun buyers to pass background checks and for all guns to be licensed and registered, much like cars.

“The problem is that Congress has failed to enact effective gun control legislation and we believe, as many do, that there are a substantial number of lawmakers who would support meaningful gun control legislation if they had the chance to do so,” said Matthew Dorf, director of the AJCongress’ Washington office.

The organized Jewish community has been calling for more stringent gun control measures for years, but what was once considered something of a low-priority issue has taken on a new sense of urgency.

“There were lots of members of the Jewish community who had glazed eyes when we talked about gun control and gun safety issues in the past, and unfortunately I think Buford Furrow and Benjamin Smith have gotten the attention of the Jewish community as to why gun control is a Jewish issue,” said the Anti-Defamation League’s Washington counsel, Michael Lieberman, referring to the white supremacists suspected in the shootings of Jews and other minorities in California and Illinois.

At the same time, recent hate crimes have also generated momentum for legislation aimed at strengthening the federal hate crimes statute. In July the Senate unanimously approved the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which allows the federal government to prosecute hate crimes sparked by sexual orientation, gender and disability.

Current federal law applies only to crimes motivated by race, color, religion or national origin.

The House has already held hearings on the measure, but it remains unclear whether there will be enough support to overcome opposition from conservative Republicans, who have argued that the bill designates special classes of citizens who are already protected under existing state laws against violence.

On the religious freedom front the Jewish community’s long-standing goal of ensuring that Americans can practice their religion free from government intrusion faces an uncertain fate.

After the House passed the Religious Liberty Protection Act in July, activists will be turning their attention to the Senate.

The bill, crafted following a 1997 U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down the protections for religious practice contained in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, appeared at the outset to be relatively uncontroversial. A wall-to-wall coalition of religious and civil liberties groups, including every major Jewish organization, formed in support of the bill.

But as the measure moved through the House earlier this year, support began breaking down among Democrats amid a dispute over whether religious liberty or civil rights laws should take precedence when the two come into conflict.

The coalition now also risks fracturing over the same concern.

At issue is the question of whether the proposed legislation could be used to justify violations of state or local anti-discrimination laws. Opponents argue that landlords and employers in states and cities with laws prohibiting discrimination against homosexuals could invoke their religious principles as a defense for refusing to rent to or hire gays and lesbians.

Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), an original sponsor of the bill who ultimately voted against it, encapsulated the concerns many have expressed over the legislation when he said, “RLPA should be a shield for the religious liberty of all — not a sword against the civil rights of some.”

Jewish activists, meanwhile, will also be focusing their attention on a host of other issues in the domestic and international arenas, among them:

Social spending: As the Clinton administration and Congress try to complete a budget agreement, Jewish activists intend to push to secure more funding for social service programs. Republican lawmakers have proposed scaling back social service block grants to the states and other programs that help fund local federation agencies, Jewish nursing homes, hospitals and various human services.

Diana Aviv, director of the United Jewish Communities’ Washington office, criticized Congress for calling for budget caps that would necessitate “harsh” cuts in such programs, and said her organization intends to urge lawmakers to use money in the budget surplus not earmarked for social security to at least maintain funding for the programs at current levels.

The Ten Commandments: In June the House adopted an amendment to the juvenile justice bill that permits states to allow the display of the Ten Commandments in schools and other public places. The move, which some lawmakers said was aimed at instilling children with traditional values in the wake of school shootings, has drawn swift condemnation from Jewish groups and church-state watchdogs.

The Senate did not include the provision in its version of the legislation, and activists say they will lobby to have it struck from the final bill.

Containment of Iran: Pro-Israel activists will be pushing for passage of the Iran Non-Proliferation Act, which seeks to keep Russia from helping Iran develop weapons of mass destruction. The bill would condition future U.S. payments to Russia to help Moscow meet its obligations for participation in the international space station project on Russian compliance in checking the flow of dangerous technologies to Iran.

Aid to Israel and the Palestinians: Activists also plan to urge Congress to approve the $1.2 billion in special aid for Israel and $400 million for the Palestinians that President Clinton promised last year in return for implementation of the Wye agreement. The money has not yet been included in foreign aid legislation.

Holocaust assets: Jewish groups are supporting legislation that would exempt Holocaust survivors from paying federal income taxes on payments stemming from settlements of Holocaust-era claims.

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