Newsdesk February 24, 2006

Published February 24, 2006, issue of February 24, 2006.
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Religion Ruling Cheered

Jewish organizations welcomed a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding a small religious sect’s right to use an illegal hallucinogenic. The União do Vegetal argued that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 exempted the group from bans on the ritual use of hoasca, a tea containing diemethyltryptamine.

The court decision Tuesday, the first on religious freedom written by Chief Justice John Roberts, said that the government did not satisfy the law’s requirement of a “compelling government interest” to halt a religious practice.

Jewish groups across the political and religious spectrum had filed amicus briefs to defend the RFRA. “If the United States wishes to restrict this religious activity, it must return to court and concretely demonstrate that its compelling interest in drug enforcement cannot allow any exception in this kind of context,” the Orthodox Union said in a statement.

Republicans Back Libby

A prominent Jewish Republican is leading a fund-raising drive for Lewis “Scooter” Libby’s legal defense.

Republican Jewish Coalition board member Mel Sembler, who served as American ambassador to Italy from 2001 to 2005, is spearheading the Libby Legal Defense Trust.

On the trust’s Web site,, Florida shopping-mall magnate Sembler, describes Libby, former chief adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney, as “one of the unsung heroes in fighting the war on terror.”

Libby, who is Jewish, resigned this past October after his indictment on perjury charges. The charges were related to his leaking the name of a CIA operative whose husband criticized the Iraq War. Other prominent Jews on the trust’s board include Sam Fox, national chairman of the RJC; Sheldon (Shelly) Kamins, a Washington-area real estate developer; professor Bernard Lewis, a prominent scholar of Islam; Stuart Bernstein, former ambassador to Denmark, and Dennis Ross, top American envoy to the Middle East during the Clinton administration.

Teacher Chains Himself

A Jewish teacher in California chained himself to a bench to protest poverty and the Iraq War.

Public school music teacher Hyim Jacob Ross, who also teaches ethics, spirituality and interpersonal communication at two synagogues in the San Francisco Bay Area, chained himself to a park bench in Oakland on Monday for a five-day protest fast. He told reporters that he’s protesting the massive spending on the war in Iraq at a time when poverty and inequality are still so prevalent in this country. Ross, in his early 30s, is subsisting on water only, and he unchains himself for bathroom breaks. He is flying an American flag from his chair.

Czech Win for Reform

The Czech Federation of Jewish Communities took a step toward recognizing Reform congregations as legal religious entities. Previously this recognition had only applied to Orthodox and conservative movements, while Reform congregations had only the status of cultural or civic organizations. The bylaw change will entitle Reform congregations to have a greater voice in community affairs where they are based and to have their rabbis put on the state payrolls, as is the case with Christian priests and rabbis from the other streams of Judaism in the Czech Republic. The bylaw change is expected to receive final approval in June.

Skater Wins Silver

American Jewish ice skater Ben Agosto and his partner earned a silver medal in ice dancing at the 2006 Olympics. Agosto and Tanith Belbin finished second to Russians Tatiana Navka and Roman Kostomarov in the ice dancing competition, which concluded Monday. Agosto’s mother is Jewish, and his father is Puerto Rican. Israelis Galit Chait and Sergei Sakhnovski, who had been expected to contend for a medal, finished eighth.

El Al Taps Evangelicals

Israel’s national carrier El Al tapped televangelist Jerry Falwell to sit on its newly formed Advisory Board to the Christian Community, a body that will encourage Christian Americans to visit Israel.

Falwell, together with eight other evangelical Christian leaders, will advise El Al on ways to better cater to religious travelers to Israel, an El Al press release said. The evangelical clergy met for the first time with El Al’s general manager for North and Central America, Michael Mayer, this week in Dallas at the annual National Religious Broadcasters Convention.

The advisory board includes televangelist and prolific author Kay Arthur of Precept Ministries International; Pastor John Hagee, founder and pastor of Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, Texas, who recently announced the establishment of Christians United for Israel, a national lobbying group that will urge the American government not to pressure Israel to withdraw from biblical land; televangelist and evangelical dramaturge Steve Munsey, pastor of Indiana; California televangelist Robert H. Schuller, and Pastor Glenn Plummer of Detroit, former chairman of the National Religious Broadcasters Association.

Mayer told his televangelist fellow members of the board: “We see it as our mission to support the leaders of the Christian communities in their spiritual activities, and will continue to maintain strong and long-lasting relationships with those who believe a trip to the Holy Land is the fulfillment of their mission.”

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