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Orthodox Groups Look to New Session to Get Pro-religious Bills Through Congress

September 11, 2003
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Orthodox groups are gearing up for an autumn of opportunity in Congress, hoping to seize a moment when they perceive increased national interest — and government support — for allowing religious practice in the public square.

By aligning themselves with other religious conservative groups, Orthodox Jewish leaders have been able to amass critical support to advance certain pieces of legislation in Congress and the White House.

“To some people’s appreciation and to some people’s consternation, the role of religion and religious advocacy has been more and more accepted and even expected in a lot of public policy debates,” said Nathan Diament, director of the Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Affairs.

While insisting that they have good relations with Democrats — traditionally the party of choice for the vast majority of American Jews — Orthodox groups frequently are asked to sign on to religiously conservative agenda items as a means of showing diverse support for hot-button measures. That garners support for many of the groups’ own priorities.

“Clearly there are some priority issues for the administration and for the current majority in Congress that dovetail with what has been our agenda for a long time,” Diament said.

That includes allowing religious people increased flexibility to practice their faith at work, granting school vouchers for parochial schools and giving federal aid to religiously affiliated charities.

The legislation, which Orthodox groups hope to see through the Senate this fall, has been a plank in the O.U.’s platform for 11 years. The bill would amend civil rights laws to require employers to accommodate the religious observances of its employees, such as observing holidays and wearing religious garb.

“The existing law has not lived up to its promise,” said Abba Cohen, Washington director and counsel for Agudath Israel of America, an fervently Orthodox group. “We are hearing more and more cases of individuals having problems at work with requests for Sabbath and holiday observances.”

The workplace act enjoys broad support among a wide spectrum of Jewish groups. The Orthodox groups part company from other Jewish groups when it comes to support for school vouchers.

Both Agudah and the O.U. hailed the vote last week in the House that allowed for scholarships for Washington schoolchildren who were in failing schools. Cohen said he saw the Washington program as a model for the country.

“The D.C. plan will come to represent an important step toward true school choice for all American families,” Cohen said.

Orthodox groups say federal funding for parochial schools is in keeping with the Jewish teaching that parents are primarily responsible for a child’s education. Other Jewish movements and several public policy organizations argue that federal funding for parochial schools blurs the line between church and state.

Also of importance to Orthodox groups are amendments to the Individuals with Disabilities Act.

Orthodox groups are seeking new language in the Special Education Funding Act, which is going through reauthorization, that would allow students in private and parochial schools to receive the same special-education services as students in public schools. The bill is expected to move through the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee this fall.

On social issues, the O.U. has lent its support to a possible Constitutional amendment that would define marriage as between a man and a woman.

The O.U. and Agudah also filed a brief in the Supreme Court this week backing state scholarships for students studying religion in college.

David Twersky, the American Jewish Congress’ communications director, said he believes the administration and congressional leaders have given Orthodox groups an “open ear.”

“You have got a Congress that sees organized religion as a pivotal institutional ally,” he said. “There is a desire to seek them and make them part of the religious backbone of the Republican party.”

Orthodox leaders say they are trying to seize an opportunity when conservatives dominate in the White House, on the Supreme Court and in Congress.

“Finally, the country, the courts, the administration and the Congress are coming around to the view that religion shouldn’t be discriminated against,” said Nathan Lewin, a Washington lawyer who serves on both the O.U. and Agudah boards.

Cohen worries that such support could soon dissipate. “Sure, there is a preference for greater expression of religion,” he said. “But at the same time, when it is rubbing against other people’s interest, you don’t have the same kind of popularity.”

He noted that the workplace act has struggled because religious observances create conflicts for the business community.

Another challenge for Orthodox groups is convincing people in Washington that the Jewish community does not speak with one voice. Many people assume that all Jews dislike school vouchers and faith-based initiatives, and believe in conventional definitions of the separation of church and state.

“We’ve always had to work hard to get that point across,” Lewin said. “To prove to people that not everything the American Jewish Congress says speaks for everyone in the Jewish community.”

Still, Diament rejected characterizations of the Orthodox community as lurching toward the Republican Party.

“It’s true we probably have a better working relationship with the administration than some other Jewish groups,” he said. “But we also have nurtured good relationships with Democrats.”

He cited the workplace act, which has support from both sides of the Senate aisle.

Whether or not that act and other proposed legislation will become law this Congressional session remains to be seen.

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