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Agudath Israel of America - National Public Policy Position Paper

III. SOCIAL, MORAL AND FAMILY ISSUES

Government is not a neutral actor in the field of social morality. The law is a teacher. It conveys certain basic societal attitudes. As such, it is important that the law embody positive values, promote both the ideals and the interests of the traditional American family, exhibit compassion to the needy, and encourage good citizenship.

It is also important that the law not reflect attitudes that are contemptuous of religious and moral teachings. Constitutionally mandated neutrality toward religion does not require nor does it permit hostility toward religion. Indeed, society would be sorely handicapped were religious perspectives excluded from the arena of public policy debate.

In line with these principles, Agudath Israel has taken positions on a host of legislative and public policy issues that touch upon fundamental moral concerns and impact upon the family unit.

The Sanctity of Human Life

One illustration of Agudath Israel's approach in this area is in the context of abortion. Jewish tradition teaches that a human fetus has status and dignity; and that termination of pregnancy raises profound moral concerns. Agudath Israel accordingly has urged the Supreme Court to reconsider its holding in Roe v. Wade, and supports legislation that restricts abortion on demand. At the same time, in line with its support for religious freedom, Agudath Israel opposes initiatives that would make abortion unlawful even in situations where termination of pregnancy is mandated by religious law as it is, for example, under Sinaitic Jewish law when the pregnancy endangers the life of the mother.

In accordance with its general position on abortion, Agudath Israel has joined the call for legislation that would generally prohibit "partial birth abortions" -- an abortion in which a living fetus is partially delivered, and then killed prior to completion of delivery. Indeed, depending on the circumstances, killing a fetus after it has partially emerged from the birth canal may more properly be deemed infanticide than abortion, and Jewish law might not even recognize a "life of the mother" exception that would permit the procedure. It certainly behooves society at large to recognize the enormity of the moral issues surrounding this procedure, and to enact significant -- if not absolute -- restrictions on its use.

Just as the sanctity of human life deserves respect and legal protection at the onset of the life cycle, so too does it deserve respect and protection as the life cycle approaches its conclusion. Agudath Israel does not support any "right to die." Society's interest in the preservation of human life fully justifies the imposition of certain limitations upon the unfettered exercise of personal autonomy in health care decision making, including the right to obtain a physician’s assistance in committing suicide. It further justifies the imposition of certain limitations upon a third party's right to make life and death medical decisions on behalf of an incapacitated patient. And it certainly justifies resistance to the effort in certain circles to achieve reform of the health care system through rationing of services that would leave the most vulnerable members of society without adequate medical protection.

Family Values and Family-Friendly Policies

Agudath Israel believes that government should weigh the impact of its policies on the viability of the traditional family unit. Parents struggling to raise children are under a severe economic burden. Agudath Israel fully supports recent proposals to target tax relief toward families with dependent children. A generous tax credit per child would enable parents to keep more of their hard earned dollars, and use those dollars to meet the basic needs of their families. There can be no better strategy for supporting hard-pressed American families.

In a related vein, Agudath Israel supports policies designed to promote the health of pregnant women and children. As urgent a priority as it must be to provide health care coverage for the millions of Americans who have no health insurance, the urgency is compounded in the context of pregnant women and children. And, as Congress and a number of states have determined, it is bad policy to force a mother and her newborn baby to leave the hospital setting before at least two days of care.

Health care coverage should further extend to the treatment of infertile couples. Advances in medical technology have made what was once an impossible dream of having children an attainable reality, but the cost of infertility treatment is often prohibitive and beyond the means of most private individuals. Agudath Israel applauds the several states that have mandated insurance coverage of infertility treatments, and urges Congress to consider a federal approach to this important issue.

In Agudath Israel's view, government has an important role to play in the regulation of pornography and other indecent materials. Smut is harmful to the healthy moral development of children. It is degrading to women. It has the capacity to incite men to anti-social conduct. The social harm it inflicts is so great that government should take whatever steps it can within the limits of the First Amendment to restrict its availability -- whether in the media, over the telephone, on billboards and city buses, via the home computer. Government should in addition take steps to give parents the information and technical ability they need to protect their children from harmful moral influences. Agudath Israel further calls upon the purveyors of popular culture to recognize the enormous responsibility that goes along with their right to freedom of expression, and to refrain from glorifying violence, promiscuity and other forms of anti-social behavior.

Agudath Israel has long advocated a strengthening of religious values in American society and appreciates the view that permitting voluntary prayer in the public schools can contribute toward that ideal. Because of its concern for children of minority faiths in the public schools, however, Agudath Israel is constrained to oppose existing school prayer proposals that include no protections to ensure that structured classroom prayer would indeed be non denominational in form and character. Agudath Israel further questions whether it is meaningful to speak of "voluntary" public school prayer; sensitive and impressionable children from minority faith backgrounds may feel unduly pressured to join their classmates in a religious exercise foreign to their own tradition.

That is not to say that there is no place in the public school setting for the basic moral values that form the foundation of all religious faiths -- indeed, of all civilized societies. Agudath Israel believes that public schools, without resorting to denominational exercises, can and should find ways to help children distinguish between right and wrong, and invest their studies and social interactions with a sense of higher moral purpose. Agudath Israel accordingly supports the idea of character education in the public schools.

The family, in its traditional form, has proven to be society's most durable and stabilizing institution. Agudath Israel was a strong supporter of the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage for purposes of federal law as it has always been understood -- the solemnized union between man and woman -- and allows states not to accord recognition to same-sex unions that are deemed "marriages" in other states. Agudath Israel opposes efforts to utilize the law to lend legitimacy to conduct that undermines the traditional family structure.

Many of the social ills afflicting modern American society have a particularly devastating impact on healthy family life. Agudath Israel supports legal initiatives to combat the contemporary plagues of teen pregnancy, youth gangs, and drug, alcohol and tobacco use by adolescents.

Social Services

In speaking out on social and moral issues, Agudath Israel has consistently maintained that government has an essential role to play in ensuring that the needs of the needy are met. As important as the objective of a balanced budget may be, the rush to fiscal solvency must not trample upon society's downtrodden: the homeless, the hungry, the disabled, the unemployed, the sick, the elderly. Government programs directed at easing the burdens of the afflicted and improving the lives of the poor should be maintained even in this era of fiscal belt tightening.

At the same time, government should adopt policies that encourage non profit and charitable organizations, as well as individual volunteers and the private business sector, to expand their social services to the needy. Agudath Israel applauds the efforts of the President and other public officials to promote a spirit of voluntarism and community service among American citizens. However, if government seeks to place greater emphasis on forging partnerships between the public and private sectors to deal with pressing social concerns, it is vital that charitable organizations, which play such an integral role in dealing with those concerns, receive enhanced levels of public support. One example of such an approach would be to restore the charitable deduction for non itemizing taxpayers.

In this context, Agudath Israel supports expansion of the "charitable choice" provisions of the 1996 welfare reform bill, under which states are encouraged to involve religious organizations in the delivery of welfare services to the needy. Charitable choice protects both the religious character of faith-based social service providers and the religious liberty of service recipients, and serves as a useful model for other federal social benefit programs.

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