Does Christian Right Have A Prayer?
Next week could be the moment of truth for Jewish groups that have gone all-out to defeat the Religious Freedom Amendment to the Constitution — a proposal many have dubbed the “religious coercion amendment” because it would legalize sectarian prayer in public schools and open the door to wholesale government funding of parochial schools.
GOP leaders have promised to bring the measure to the House floor in early June. That means opponents — including most major Jewish groups — will soon face a pivotal vote in which simply winning isn’t good enough.
“Fighting Istook has been a top priority for us,” said Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. “I’m confident we’ll be able to defeat it, but we need to do
more; we need a strong vote so they will be deterred from bringing this kind of garbage up again in this Congress.”
It takes two-thirds of both Houses to pass a constitutional amendment. Rep. Ernest Jim Istook (R-Okla.), the key sponsor, seems resigned to the fact he won’t reach that milestone in the House, at least this time around.
But Jewish activists fear that if the measure fails, but still wins a simple majority, it will spawn new measures, both constitutional amendments and simple legislation.
“The vote on this amendment will serve as a litmus test of the strength of the Christian Coalition and its allies to its right,” according to a recent American Jewish Congress action alert. “Its defeat by a decisive margin will signal that the platform of the Coalition is not invincible.”
Jewish groups are pointing out that most major religious groups — Christian, Jewish and Muslim — oppose the amendment.
But Republican leaders in the House, facing pressure from restive religious right leaders who claim the GOP hasn’t paid enough attention to their top domestic priorities, are pushing harder for Istook than they were a few months ago.
“It’s a tough, slogging effort,” said one Jewish activist who has been lobbying on the issue. “We’re fighting hard for each defection from the Republicans. We have a chance to keep Istook from winning a majority — but it’s going to be very hard.”
Liberty Act Ready To Roll … Finally
Also on tap when Congress comes back from its Memorial Day recess: action on the long-delayed Religious Liberty Protection Act, which will attempt to restore some of the protections lost last year when the Supreme Court overturned the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
The original RFRA, passed in 1993, prohibited government bodies from restricting religious rights unless they could demonstrate a compelling state need to do so.
But last year, the high court ruled that such protections are the province of the federal courts and the states, not Congress. A broad coalition of religious groups responded by writing a less comprehensive, more narrowly focused law that prohibits the use of government money to restrict religious freedom.
But drafting that measure has been a long, arduous process. The problem: how to write the new legislation in ways that will be neutral on key Establishment Clause issues, since members of the coalition — which includes liberal Jewish groups, church-state watchdog organizations and Christian Right groups — have radically different views on issues such as funding for parochial institutions.
“There is an overriding belief that restoring RFRA, at least in part, is vital,” said one participant. “But because this version focuses on funding, it would be easy for the new legislation to be construed as supporting or rejecting things like funding for religious schools.”
As a result, this source said, the drafting committee working on the legislation has “looked at every word and thrashed out every phrase to make sure the act doesn’t favor one side or the other on these questions.”
That protracted process is apparently coming to an end. The House will take up the measure, introduced by Rep. Charles Canady (R-Fla.) sometime in the next few weeks, and Jewish leaders hope they can convince congressional leaders to put it on the fast track.
Hot Races Getting Hotter
More and more, Congress is playing a major role in Mideast policy, a fact that has galvanized pro-Israel forces as this year’s congressional races move into high gear.
Last week’s Pennsylvania Republican primary provided an early indication that Sen. Arlen Specter, a moderate Republican and a pro-Israel stalwart, could face his easiest race ever.
Specter, shooting for a fourth term, held off two relative unknowns in the GOP primary. Most observers expect him to have no trouble in November.
“He’s a moderate Republican, but he’s also solidified his position with the religious conservatives by sponsoring Wolf-Specter,” said Charles Brooks, executive director of the National PAC, a pro-Israel political action committee. Brooks was referring to a bill championed by groups like the Christian Coalition, but supported by a number of Jewish organizations as well, imposing economic penalties on countries that sanction religious persecution. “Specter is a hard campaigner, and his base seems to be growing.”
Rep. Jon Fox, representing a suburban Philadelphia district and now one of only two Jewish Republicans in the House, may have a harder time. Last week Fox beat back three GOP challengers, but in November he will face Democrat Joseph Hoeffel, whom he beat by only 84 votes last time around.
Fox’s 1996 re-election effort became a high priority for Jewish Republicans when it became clear his job was in serious jeopardy. The same will probably hold true this year.
For the first time in recent memory, Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.) faces a serious primary challenge, thanks in large measure to changing demographics in his district. Berman, a pivotal figure in the pro-Israel caucus, faces a serious primary challenge from Raul Godinez II, the mayor of San Fernando, who could benefit from growing Hispanic political clout in the district.
“Howard is an excellent politician, but the numbers are getting more difficult every year,” said a leading Jewish Democrat. “We’re confident he’ll keep his seat, but there may be some nail biting.”Shelley Berkeley, a Jewish women and a Democrat who has strong ties to the pro-Israel movement, is the clear front-runner in the race for an open House seat in Nevada.
Rep. Steve Rothman (D-N.J.) and Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), both elected in 1996, face tough races to keep their seats.
And in Texas, Gov. George Bush is trying for a big win in his reelection battle to give him a head start in the race for the 2000 GOP nomination. Jewish political activists have been reaching out to Bush, but several pro-Israel activists have expressed concern.
“There’s always the fear that he’s his father’s son,” said one. “People will be watching this one very closely.”
‘Virtual Knesset’ Teaches Pluralism
The Washington D.C.-based New Israel Fund has developed a unique program to help educators and students explore the explosive question of religious pluralism in Israel.
The “Virtual Knesset” provides a lesson plan, background materials and instructions for setting up model Knessets, with the object of debating pluralism-related issues.
Students take on the roles of representatives of the major religious groups, and then — after getting extensive background information about two major issues currently dividing Israeli society — role-play the kind of debate that might take place within the Israeli parliament.
The issues: the right of non-Orthodox groups to pray at the Western Wall, and the “Shabbat wars” in Jerusalem.
The students work with materials prepared with the help of groups representing the major religious factions in Israel. So students playing the “ultra-Orthodox” roles read position statements on these issues prepared with the help of Agudath Israel, while students playing the Reform role use materials offered by Reform organizations in Israel.
Early tests of the program — the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism recently ran the Virtual Knesset with some 90 students — suggest that the program provokes lively debate and a greater understating of the difficult issues facing Israelis.
“We’ve tried as much as possible to capture the realities of the debate and create a mechanism that will allow American Jews to think through very complex and emotional issues,” said Roger Bennett, director of North American Programs for the New Israel Fund and the developer of the Virtual Knesset program.
The materials are being distributed by Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist groups in this country.