American Jewry’s umbrella organization for domestic issues has called on Congress to expand a key provision of the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act to protect students from discrimination on the basis of religion. But the nascent effort has already raised the hackles of some Jewish officials who worry that this could open a can of worms over the separation of religion and state.
The Jewish Council for Public Affairs voted May 6 to call for Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which bars discrimination in programs receiving federal assistance, to be expanded to include religion. It now bars discrimination on only the bases of race, ethnicity and national origin.
The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights already interpreted the law to cover religious groups that have “shared ethnic characteristics,” like Jews, Sikhs and Muslims. Now, Jewish groups, which pushed for the new interpretation, are asking to make this change permanent by revising the law.
“What an agency giveth, an agency can taketh away,” said Gerald Greiman, co-chair of the JCPA’s Task Force on Jewish Security and the Bill of Rights, which helped draft the resolution. “Having [religion] added to the statute would give those protections more permanence than a mere agency interpretation.”
Legal experts at Jewish organizations say they support the broad concept of the expansion. But they warned that adding religion as a protected category under Title VI could lead to a host of unforeseen issues.
The American Jewish Committee’s general counsel, Marc Stern, said that the JCPA resolution, which the AJC supported, could have a serious impact on Jewish organizations that want to primarily hire or serve Jews.
He offered the example of a Jewish nursing home that accepts Medicaid. If religious discrimination is prohibited under Title VI, that nursing home might be barred from giving preferential treatment to Jews in hiring employees and admitting clients.
“A whole series of questions will arise,” said Stern, who said that the effort could plunge Congress into a divisive fight over the separation of religion and state.
Deborah Lauter, civil rights director at the Anti-Defamation League, also warned against “unintended consequences” of Title VI’s extension to religion, even though the ADL supported the measure.
She predicted that some campus religious groups might claim that their beliefs prevent them from giving equal treatment to certain groups, such as homosexuals or members of other religions. They might use the rule to claim protection from efforts by college officials in order to force them to change those policies.
“We have to explore if there are any downsides,” Lauter said.