Push To Expand Title VI to Religion

Jewish Groups Press for Permanent Civil Rights Extension

Proposed Protection: Jewish groups want to formally expand the Civil Rights Act so it would prohibit discrimination against students on the basis of religion.
courtesy of david project
Proposed Protection: Jewish groups want to formally expand the Civil Rights Act so it would prohibit discrimination against students on the basis of religion.

By Naomi Zeveloff

Published May 09, 2012, issue of May 18, 2012.
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In order to get around thorny questions that deal with the separation of church and state, Jewish groups have looked at tweaking the language of the statute in a way that would include religion, but on a limited basis.

Though the JCPA has not yet drafted a legislative proposal to extend Title VI, its own policy resolution hints at the way this could be done, by asking Congress to bar “religious harassment and intimidation.” Notably, the resolution says nothing about discrimination in hiring or in admissions.

“Title VI is not a be-all, end-all remedy for every and any kind of discrimination or wrong that occurs on a college campus,” Greiman said. The Jewish community’s focus is on “harassment and intimidation that rises to the level of being so pervasive and objectively offensive that it denies the student the benefit of the education.”

Kenneth Marcus, the former head of OCR, applauded the JCPA language about “harassment and intimidation,” saying it was useful in making a Title VI extension to religion more palatable in Congress. “This language would be extraordinarily helpful,” he said. “It is a very streamlined form of religious discrimination protection.”

The JCPA resolution isn’t the first attempt to amend Title VI to include religion. In 2010, Rep. Brad Sherman, a California Democrat, and former Sen. Arlen Specter, a Republican-turned-Democrat from Pennsylvania, introduced twin bills that would have achieved the same goal. Though the bills failed, they are widely considered the catalyst behind the DOE’s decision in 2010 to extend Title VI to religious groups that have “shared ethnic characteristics.”

In the past year and a half, the Jewish community has utilized Title VI mainly in the context of the Israel debate on campus, filing complaints alleging that anti-Israel activity tilted into anti-Semitic behavior. This cause has been championed by the Zionist Organization of America, which has outstanding cases at Rutgers University and the University of California, Irvine. The ZOA has lambasted the JCPA’s approach to Title VI, which urges caution in filing complaints lest the Jewish world be seen as quashing free speech on campus.

But Susan Tuchman, the ZOA’s legal director, said that she supports the JCPA’s desire to extend Title VI permanently to include religion. “Enshrining it into law would not make that legal protection subject to how [OCR] decides to interpret Title VI,” she said.

Non-Jewish groups, on the other hand, are split on amending Title VI to include religion. Raj Deep, director of law and policy at the Sikh Coalition, said that Sikh students typically face discrimination not in college, but in primary and secondary schools, where they are teased for wearing turbans. He said that religion should be included under Title VI, just like it is under Title VII, which bars discrimination in employment.

“Our position is that there should be parity and symmetry to civil rights law,” he said. “It will empower our various communities to vindicate our rights in ways that aren’t possible right now.”

Gadeir Abbas of the Council on American-Islamic Relations said that Title VI’s extension to include religion is unnecessary, because students are typically protected by state statutes that bar religious discrimination.

“Our position is that there are already in place protections for religious groups on campus,” he said.

Contact Naomi Zeveloff at zeveloff@forward.com


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