WASHINGTON — As congressional Republicans press a series of legislative initiatives aimed at mobilizing religious conservative voters, Jewish organizations are fighting two of the measures that they say would further erode the wall separating church and state.
The first measure being opposed by Jewish organizations would ease the limitations on sectarian prayers by military chaplains. The other bill, which last week cleared a major hurdle in the House of Representatives, would bar federal courts from ordering the government to reimburse legal costs of individuals or groups who file lawsuits in cases involving the First Amendment clause prohibiting Congress from passing any law respecting an establishment of religion.
Both pieces of legislation, according to congressional insiders, are part of a final push by Republicans to rally their religious conservative base in advance of the midterm elections in November. Congress returned last week from its month-long August recess, and will adjourn again on October 1 for the rest of the campaign season.
“The Republican leadership — particularly on the House of Representatives’ side — has been very clear about pushing its values-agenda before and in connection with the elections and part of that is appealing to their base of the religious right,” said Hadar Susskind, Washington director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, a policy coordinating body that brings together 13 national Jewish agencies and 125 local Jewish community relations councils. “That’s the driving force behind the timing” of the legislation.
The bill barring legal fee reimbursements in cases involving governmental endorsement of — or discrimination against — religious groups or religious doctrines already passed the House Judiciary Committee on September 7, with the 12 Republicans present supporting the measure and the five Democrats in attendance opposing it. The bill, known as “Public Expression of Religion Act of 2006,” or PERA, was sponsored by John Hostettler, an Indiana Republican and a Judiciary Committee member, who contends that the legislation is necessary to prevent groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union from intimidating government agencies into agreeing to out-of-court settlements in such cases.
Hostetler, in a statement he released after the vote last week, called the committee vote “a big victory for Americans who care about our rich religious heritage in this country.”
The threat of having to pay legal fees, Hostetler said, often leads public officials to opt for an out of court settlement — a turn of event he described as “outrageous.”
Opponents of the bill — including several Jewish groups — view it as an unfair attempt to block legitimate litigation. The measure “would make it more difficult and more expensive to sue government officials over public endorsement of religion,” said Michael Lieberman, the Anti-Defamation League’s Washington counsel.
“Like court-stripping bills, this legislation attempts to eliminate an important avenue for challenge and redress for constitutional violations,” said Lieberman. He added that the bill could impact challenges to cases involving “Intelligent Design,” public displays of the Ten Commandments and Nativity scenes in City Hall.
A September 5 letter sent to the House Judiciary Committee by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs said: “This restriction severely limits the ability of Americans to bring suit against the government or public officials when their religious liberties have been compromised.” The letter added: “Lawsuits are very expensive. The passage of this bill would essentially prohibit all but the very wealthy from protecting their rights.”
Several non-Jewish religious and civil rights groups also oppose the bill. The bill’s chief backer is the American Legion, an organization that for years has been giving Ten Commandments monuments to local governments for display at county courthouses across America.
The legislation still must be approved by the full House and the Senate, where a similar bill was introduced by Senator Sam Brownback, the Kansas Republican. Sources familiar with the legislative process said it has slim chances of passing the Senate.
The measure regarding military chaplains, which aims to give them more leeway to conduct sectarian prayers, was passed by the House in May as an amendment to the Defense Department Authorization Act. In July, the Senate passed its own version of the Defense Authorization bill that does not include that language on chaplaincy. Negotiators from both chambers are now determining whether the final bill would include the controversial measure or not.
Jewish group are strongly opposing the liberalization of prayer restrictions. Current law already permits chaplains, in some circumstances, to pray according to their religious tradition. It requires, however, that in occasions attended by a large crowd, they pray in a more inclusive manner. Such inclusive prayers would not, for example, mention Jesus Christ.
The new measure, passed by the House but not by the Senate, provides chaplains the “prerogative to pray according to the dictates of the chaplain’s own conscience, except as must be limited by military necessity, with any such limitation being imposed in the least restrictive manner feasible.”
Four Jewish groups — the American Jewish Committee, the ADL, the JCPA and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism — along with several national Christian groups sent a letter to every House member asserting that the chaplaincy measure “shows a lack of respect for the diversity of religious beliefs in our military.” The letter further states that the new legislation is a “clear attempt to undercut” new guidelines that the Air Force adopted earlier this year following several documented cases of intolerance and religious coercion.
The letter argues that it is common courtesy to pray in as inclusive a manner as one’s faith tradition permits when praying during a multi-faith gathering, particularly when attendance is compulsory.