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Lame-duck Congress May Tackle Measure Dividing Jewish Groups

November 6, 2002
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A legislative issue that has been brewing in the Jewish community may boil over when Congress returns for its “lame-duck” session next week.

Jewish groups are at odds over the CARE bill, the Charitable Aid Recovery and Empowerment Act, which aims to increase charitable giving and allows new funding to religious organizations to provide social services.

Most Jewish groups are opposed to the bill because they believe it would allow employment discrimination and other civil rights violations.

But supporters, including the United Jewish Communities, say it is vital to the continued viability of social services and charities.

Observers say the bill has a good chance of getting some attention when the old Congress returns for some unfinished business on Nov. 12.

Or it may have to wait until the new Congress begins work early next year.

It is unclear how long lawmakers will stay for the lame-duck session next week.

The session could last as few as three days, which would leave little time to do much other than pass the appropriations bills needed to keep the government running.

It is also not clear who will be in control in the U.S. Senate when the lawmakers return for their final days.

The one-seat edge the Democrats had could disappear with this week’s appointment by Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura’s of Independence Party member Dean Barkley to replace the late Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone until the new Congress is installed.

Most of the domestic agenda items of interest to the organized Jewish community were not on the radar screen of the 107th Congress, as the possibility of war with Iraq and homeland security dominated lawmakers’ attentions.

Those issues, which some hold out hope might get attention next week — or in the next Congress — include:

hate crimes legislation, which would authorize federal prosecution of crimes motivated by sexual orientation, gender, or disability, expanding the current laws that protect victims of crimes motivated by race, color, religion or ethnicity;

the Workplace Religious Freedom Act, which would strengthen federal civil rights laws by requiring employers to grant employees greater accommodation for religious observances such, as taking time off for religious holidays and the wearing of religious garb; and

welfare legislation. Congress is working to reauthorize the expiring 1996 welfare bill and Jewish groups want an increase in funding for certain social services, such as child welfare.

In a Congress that passed little legislation in general, Jewish groups achieved no dramatic victories. But several groups lauded the passage of election reform legislation, campaign finance reform and the Sudan Peace Act, which condemns Sudan for its practice of slavery and other human rights abuses.

The bill, which could provide significant new funding to charities, allows individuals to roll over Individual Retirement Accounts and transfer the assets directly to a charity.

The measure also would increase the Social Services Block Grant to return it to its 1995 level of $2.8 billion over 2 years.

The grant, which provides federal funding to states to provide social services such as drug treatment centers and job training, was funded at $1.7 billion in 2002.

The UJC, the Jewish community’s central fund-raising and social services agency, is aggressively supporting the bill and opposes any amendments that would hurt the bill’s chances of approval.

Most other Jewish groups agree with the pieces of the legislation that focus on charitable giving and increases for the block grant. But they see the part of the bill that deals with federal funding to religious groups to provide social services as a variation on the charitable choice debate.

They want to see language inserted that would protect against proselytization and discrimination on the basis of religion against employees, potential employees and beneficiaries of a service.

The result of an amendment that would prohibit faith-based groups from using federal funds to hire on the basis of religion, Aviv warned, could affect the ability of federations, which receive government funds, to hire Jews.

Aviv said she was surprised by the vehement opposition expressed by other groups.

“There is enough in the bill that is positive and the negative is not that negative,” she said.

Jewish groups opposed to the legislation unless it is amended include the Anti-Defamation League, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress, Hadassah and the National Council of Jewish Women.

“So far the CARE Act is silent on important church-state and religious discrimination issues,” said Michael Lieberman, Washington counsel for the ADL. “The safeguards need to be made explicit.”

For its part, the Orthodox Union supports the bill and says there is no issue of employment discrimination.

“It’s the exercise of religious liberty by religious organizations,” said Nathan Diament, director of the O.U.’s Institute for Public Affairs.

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