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Agudath Israel of America - National Public Policy Position Paper


The United States was founded by persons seeking refuge from religious persecution. The First Amendment's guarantee that each individual shall be entitled to the "free exercise of religion" is, in many respects, what sets the United States apart from so many other nations even today.

As a religious minority in this country, and as a people that has suffered through a long history of persecution, Jews must be constantly alert to deprivations of religious and civil rights. This is especially true for Orthodox Jews, whose religious practices with respect to diet, dress, and Sabbath and holiday observance often make them readily identifiable targets for discrimination.

In line with these principles, Agudath Israel was a leading proponent on Capitol Hill of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the landmark 1993 law designed to re-establish the full scope of free exercise protection the Supreme Court had eviscerated in its troubling 1990 "peyote" decision. Now that RFRA has been declared unconstitutional insofar as it relates to the actions of state and local governments, Agudath Israel calls upon Congress to pass the Religious Liberty Protection Act, a carefully tailored bill designed to restore free exercise protection within the constitutional parameters established by the Supreme Court.

In addition, as outlined below, Agudath Israel has taken positions on many issues that relate to the religious and civil rights of Orthodox Jews in a variety of specific settings.

Anti Religious Discrimination and Bias

Agudath Israel has consistently spoken out against discrimination on the basis of religious identity, belief and practice, in contexts as diverse as employment, housing, court hearings, civil service examinations, school attendance and testing. Agudath Israel supports legislative efforts to clarify and enhance the laws prohibiting religious discrimination and mandating reasonable religious accommodation; to streamline the procedures for seeking redress against discriminatory practices; and to strengthen existing enforcement mechanisms against illegal acts of discrimination.

Indeed, one of Agudath Israel's major legislative priorities for the 106th Congress is the "Workplace Religious Freedom Act", a bill that would significantly enhance the protections available to Sabbath observers under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Agudath Israel further supports the development of guidelines -- whether by statute or Equal Employment Opportunity Commission regulation -- governing religious harassment in the workplace. Religion, no less than race and gender, deserves protection under EEOC anti-harassment guidelines. At the same time, care must be taken in developing such guidelines that they not have the unintended effect of stifling religious expression in the workplace.

The growth of the Orthodox Jewish community has resulted in a disturbing phenomenon in a number of municipalities across the country: the resistance by entrenched communities against the influx of Orthodox Jews. This resistance is occasionally reflected in the promulgation of zoning ordinances designed to make it difficult to build houses of worship; for an Orthodox Jew, who is prohibited from driving an automobile on the Sabbath, the absence of a synagogue within walking distance makes it effectively impossible to live in the neighborhood. Agudath Israel supports rigorous enforcement of the civil rights and fair housing laws to combat this pernicious form of discrimination.

Agudath Israel opposes the imposition of quotas, goals and timetables in such contexts as school admissions, private employment and the awarding of public contracts, and thus welcomes efforts to carefully and critically re-examine the broad variety of existing "affirmative action" programs. Discrimination on the basis of such characteristics as race, sex, creed or national origin, even where motivated by a desire to alleviate the effects of prior discrimination against certain broad classes, is often unfair and unacceptable and tends to have a dispropor tionately adverse impact on qualified Jewish persons. The operative principles should always be equal opportunity and merit based selection.

Anti religious bias manifests itself not only in discriminatory practices, but occasionally in acts of physical violence as well. Vandals who desecrate houses of worship, religious schools, sacred articles and consecrated cemeteries deserve vigorous prosecution and significant punishment. Agudath Israel accordingly supports legislation such as the Church Arson Act of 1996, which enhances government's ability effectively to pursue such crimes.

Accommodating Religious Rights in Various Settings: Hospitals, the Armed Services, and Prisons

Patients in health care facilities are in an especially vulnerable position. They are often totally reliant upon strangers to provide for their most basic needs physical, emotional and spiritual. Agudath Israel supports laws designed to ensure that the religious needs of patients in hospitals and other health care settings are met. For Jewish patients, this would include such matters as the provision of kosher food and religious materials, and respect for Sabbath and holiday observances.

In a related vein, Agudath Israel believes that the religious needs of health care providers also deserve legislative protection. Hospitals or health care personnel should generally not be compelled to perform medical procedures they find religiously or morally objectionable. Similarly, they should not be compelled to discontinue medical treatment or to withhold nutrition or hydration if it would violate their beliefs to do so.

On questions concerning medical treatment, Jewish law imposes upon its adherents certain requirements that occasionally conflict with provisions of secular law. Such conflicts are especially likely to arise in an era of "reform" where health care is perceived as a commodity that should be rationed on a cost-benefit basis, thereby making treatment unavailable to certain patients with a diminished "quality of life" -- even if those patients' own religious beliefs would require treatment under the circumstances. Agudath Israel is concerned generally about the trend toward medical rationing, and believes that at a minimum the law should mandate reasonable accommodation of sincerely held religious beliefs in such areas as treatment of the terminally ill and the establishment of criteria of death.

Agudath Israel believes that armed services personnel should not be asked to sacrifice their religious convictions when they serve their country. Substantial though the military's interest in uniformity may be, it ought not overcome the legitimate religious needs of individual servicemembers unless accommodating those needs would endanger national security or physical integrity. Agudath Israel applauds the federal law enacted in the late 1980's embodying this principle of religious freedom, and has worked with the Department of Defense to ensure that the religious needs of servicemembers are met in such areas as dress, diet, and Sabbath and holiday observance.

The religious rights of prisoners have also commanded Agudath Israel's attention. The relatively small population of observant Jewish inmates should be entitled to receive kosher food, to wear religious garb, and to engage in religious practices that pose no danger to themselves or to prison security.

In a broader vein, one federal prisoner in particular -- Jonathan J. Pollard -- deserves special mention. Pollard, a U.S. Naval Intelligence Officer, received a life sentence in 1987 after pleading guilty to the crime of spying for Israel. While the crime of espionage is absolutely reprehensible, the harshness of Pollard's punishment is extremely troubling, for several reasons: his espionage took place during a time of peace; the country for which he spied was a staunch ally of the United States; he received his sentence after a plea bargain, not a trial; his sentence appears to be disproportionately harsh compared to sentences received by other recently convicted spies. Agudath Israel believes the time has arrived for Pollard to be released.

Protecting Consumers of Kosher Food

Consumer protection is yet another context in which Agudath Israel has worked to protect Jewish rights. Unscrupulous manufacturers and merchants have been known to take advantage of observant Jews who have special dietary and other religious requirements by misrepresenting certain products as satisfying those requirements when in fact they do not. Agudath Israel accordingly supports legislation designed to combat consumer fraud perpetrated against religious consumers.

At the federal level, Agudath Israel has worked with the Food and Drug Administration and other agencies with jurisdiction over food products to clarify the extent to which existing consumer protection laws relating to mislabeling and false advertising apply to food products that are falsely held out to the public as having been certified kosher. Agudath Israel has further proposed legislation that would require manufacturers of food shipped across interstate lines whose packages or labels bear a kosher certification symbol to register certain basic consumer information concerning the certification symbol.

Working closely with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Congress, Agudath Israel has been vigilant in protecting the practice of Jewish ritual slaughter, including the post-slaughter processes of salting and soaking, against government regulation that might infringe upon these religiously mandated practices.

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