September 9, 1999
Jewish Hot-Button Issues
Hate crimes, guns, religious freedom top the agenda for the returning Congress
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 domestic concerns for the Jewish community, 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, 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 noncontroversial. 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."