Christian Right Fails Test
In Washington, one of the first things legislators, lobbyists and aides learn to do is claim victory, no matter what the final vote. That was the drill for religious right activists last week after House Republicans couldn’t muster the votes to pass the Religious Freedom Amendment, which would legalize sectarian prayer in public schools and open the door to public funding of religious institutions.
Christian Coalition director Randy Tate said that “we consider it a victory to have had this vote, the first of its kind in the House in 27 years.”
But he failed to point out that the measure, despite the Coalition’s frantic last-minute lobbying blitz, actually did worse than the last major school prayer amendment, which was defeated in 1971 — before there was a
When the vote started, members of the coalition allied against the “Istook” amendment — named after lead sponsor Rep. Ernest Jim Istook (R-Okla.) — hoped for 180 nays, but when the tally was complete, 203 legislators had rejected the controversial measure, dubbed the “Religious Coercion” amendment by opponents.
Every Jewish member voted against the amendment, including both Jewish Republicans — Rep. Jon Fox (R-Pa.) and Rep. Ben Gilman (R-N.Y.).
The pro-Istook cause was harmed, several analysts said, by harsh last-minute lobbying by Christian right groups aimed at swing lawmakers who were not persuaded that tampering with the First Amendment was a good idea.
In particular, Rep. Chet Edwards (D-Texas) was targeted with mailings accusing him of an “anti-Christian” bias. Several defectors from Istook indicated that they had changed their votes because of the strident attacks.
Jewish activists said the anti-Istook effort was the biggest by a broad-based Jewish coalition in years — although they pointed out that the National Jewish coalition, a group of Jewish Republicans, and the Orthodox Union sat out the fight.
Jewish activists were pleased with Istook’s defeat, but warned that the school prayer battle is far from over.
“Getting over 200 votes was gratifying and important,” said Richard Foltin, legislative director for the American Jewish Committee. “But I’m still very disturbed that a majority of the House was willing to vote for an unnecessary, dangerous change to the Bill of Rights. That’s nothing to be sanguine about.”
Foltin and others do not expect additional school prayer amendments, at least not in the immediate future. But there are indications that Republican lawmakers will add school prayer language to other legislation.
RLPA Introduced, Acronym Overload
RFRA is being replaced with RLPA, which is not the same as WFRA.
That may be a little hard to keep straight in the days ahead as Congress moves on from the defeated Religious Freedom/school prayer amendment to the Constitution to a measure Jewish groups unanimously agree really will enhance religious liberty — the Religious Liberty Protection Act, or RLPA for short.
RLPA is the congressional fix for RFRA — the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, passed in 1993 and overturned by the Supreme Court last year because the justices felt Congress was usurping powers that belong to the states.
The new RLPA is a much narrower bill aimed at preventing governments from using public money to interfere with religious practices, a legislative gambit designed to help the measure pass judicial scrutiny.
RLPA will combat threats to religious liberty posed by government bureaucracies that “enforce rules blindly, without consideration of the impact those rules have for religious practice,” said Marc D. Stern, co-director of the American Jewish Congress Commission on Law and Social Action and a key drafter of the measure.
Answering critics of the original RFRA, Stern said the measure will not allow drug use or child abuse in the name of religious freedom, or grant prison inmates privileges that will compromise security. The overturned RFRA was opposed by prison officials, and the original bill stemmed from a Supreme Court decision in the so-called “peyote” case, involving claims by a Native American that his religion required the use of the hallucinogenic drug.
Lead sponsors for RLPA are Rep. Charles Canady (R-Fla.), Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). The legislation was introduced in both Houses this week, although nobody expects it will get very far in a Congress that’s already racing for an early election-year adjournment.
And what about WRFA?
The Workplace Religious Freedom Act, which would make it easier for Sabbath observers and others to fulfill their religious obligations without losing their jobs, has also been introduced in both Houses, but so far it’s gone nowhere.
“People are still trying to deal with concerns from the business community,” said a Jewish lobbyist here. “There’s an effort to make sure all our ducks are in a row before moving on WRFA.”
Translation: don’t look for serious action this year.
Congressional Short Takes
Some interesting congressional doings this week.
Members of Israel’s Knesset and a handful of Capitol Hill machers have created a joint panel to study missile defenses — a subject that is getting increasing attention here and in Jerusalem in the wake of the South Asian arms race.
On the roster: Knesset members Uzi Landau and Ori Orr, who were in town last week for preliminary meetings, and a bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers, including Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.,) and Rep. Neil Abecrombie ((D-Hawaii).
A congressional source said that while the group’s charter was general, it would look at the growing threat of missile proliferation in the region, as well as research on defensive programs and the Arrow anti-ballistic missile program, an Israeli project funded largely by Washington.
On another front, a group of pro-peace process activists has written to the House leadership, complaining about what they see as a growing level of partisan rancor when it comes to Mideast issues.
“We are deeply troubled by the provocative rhetoric that has characterized some recent congressional statements about the administration’s attempts to prevent an outbreak of violence and to get the peace process back on track,” they wrote.
Although the letter was addressed to both House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.), Capitol Hill sources said it was clearly aimed at GOP leaders, who have accused the Clinton administration of blackmailing Israel into accepting a bigger troop redeployment than the Likud government feels is safe.
The letter was authored by E. Robert Goodkind, Alexander Grass, Seymour D. Reich and Susan K. Stern, a bi-partisan group of Jewish lay leaders who have supported the peace process.
Big Win On Food Stamps
Some rare good news for immigrants in these days of slashed budgets and anti-immigrant regulations: last week the House approved $818 million to restore Food Stamp benefits to some legal immigrants. The administration originally asked for $2.5 billion, but Jewish groups were not quibbling.
The sum came as part of a $1.9 billion agriculture research bill, which went to President Clinton for his signature this week. Jewish groups fought hard for the measure, and to keep the funding from getting siphoned off into other programs.
“This bill not only supports farmers but fulfills a commitment the president made when he signed the welfare reform law to restore the unnecessary and mean-spirited benefit cuts for legal immigrants,” said a White House spokesman last week, referring to the 1996 Welfare Reform Bill.
The measure will restore Food Stamps to about 30 percent of the recipients who were affected by the welfare reform bill — primarily the elderly, the young and the disabled, as well as refugees fleeing persecution.
Some Republicans complained that the measure undid the results of their welfare overhaul, but Jewish activists disagreed.
“This isn’t about giving money to able-bodied people, and it doesn’t undo the welfare bill,” said Reva Price, Washington representative for the Jewish Council on Public Affairs. “All it does is undo a ridiculous part of that bill that financed welfare ‘reform’ on the backs of people who genuinely need help.”