Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism

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Overview: Mark J. Pelavin, Associate Director

"... Nasty, brutish and short." That was English philosopher Thomas Hobbes's description of the "life of man" some four hundred years ago. It is also an apt prediction for the Second Session of the 106th Congress. That session, which begins this month, will include (factoring in the usual recesses, time off for the party conventions, and the desire to adjourn as early as possible) only one hundred or so "legislative days." It will pick up where the First Session left off - with internal partisanship and legislative gridlock - and will be powerfully shaped by the looming elections in November 2000.

Although the outlook for significant progress on key issues on our agenda — gun control, campaign finance reform, health care — is challenging, the heated political atmosphere could also turn out to be a spur to action. And, for activists there is no better time to make our voices heard than in the run up to a major election!

The following agenda reflects the priority policy goals of the Reform Movement, based on resolutions passed by the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) and the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), their affiliates, and the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism (CSA) which is charged with implementing the social action policies of the URJ and the CCAR. These goals are, not surprisingly, similar to our goals for the First Session of the 106th Congress. That is both good news and bad news. The good news: we were again able to beat back a number of troubling proposals - including the partial birth abortion ban and serious attempts to limit the rights of gays and lesbians (which we will undoubtedly see again). The bad news: we were not able to secure many important advances (a raise in the minimum wage, a comprehensive Patients' Bill of Rights, Campaign Finance Reform) that we sought.

There are, however, a number of new items on our agenda, and they, no doubt, will be amongst our highest priorities. We will actively work to address international sexual trafficking and the on-going war in Sudan. We will support the Hunger Relief Act and the Traffic Stop Statistics Act. Building on new URJ resolutions, we will step up our work on criminal justice issues, and on protecting social security. And we will again lead the fight to keep the Istook Constitutional Amendment on school prayer from becoming law.

In light of the powerful comments made by Rabbi Eric Yoffie, President of the URJ, at the URJ Biennial this past December, we will also devote considerable time and effort to the passage of gun control legislation in this Congress. Rabbi Yoffie has clearly highlighted and laid down the challenge for us: "There also exists a spineless Congress that for thirty years has disregarded the will of 80 percent of the American people. The pattern is always the same: after high profile killings, there is a blip of outrage from Capitol Hill and the passage of some minor gun restrictions. In the meantime, children continue to die unnoticed every day, and the gun traffickers soon learn to circumvent the new laws. What we need now is an end to tokenism and abject cowardice in Congress, and the passage of legislation that will make a significant dent in the easy availability of firearms." We will work to meet the challenge, to inspire our constituency, and to build strong coalitions that will succeed in advocating crucial changes to the laws that govern the availability of firearms in America.

In the Second Session of the 106th Congress, the challenge of pursuing justice will be as urgent as ever, and perhaps even more challenging. We publish our agenda now, as the 106th Congress reconvenes, to help shape Congress' agenda and to allow activists to prepare for a critical legislative session. This Congress still has the potential for greater progress. It is our responsibility, our task and our goal, to make it live up to that potential.


Issue Areas

Campaign Finance Reform

Children's Issues

Civil Rights and Civil Liberties

Criminal Justice

Economic Justice

Education

Environment

Foreign Aid

Gun Control

Hate Crimes

Health Care and Bio-Ethics

International Affairs

Religious Liberties

Reproductive Rights and Women's Issues


Campaign Finance Reform

The skyrocketing cost of election campaigns has favored the wealthy candidate and created an increasing dependency on PAC money.

— URJ Resolution on "Congressional Campaign Finance Reform," 1984

As the nation prepares for the 2000 elections, the need for reform has never been clearer. We will support national legislation, such as the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act (H.R. 417/S. 26), sponsored by Representative Christopher Shays (R-CT) and Martin Meehan (D-MA) in the House, and Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Russell Feingold (D-WI) in the Senate. This legislation passed the House of Representatives in the First Session, and was killed in the Senate through obstructionist tactics. We will also participate in state legislative battles that could set a precedent for federal reform. In particular, we will support a promising reform system, "Clean Money Reform," which involves voluntary, public financing of elections.


Children's Issues

Although the resources to improve, protect and assure the well being of children are available, nevertheless a substantial proportion of the world's children face lives of desperation.

— Women of Reform Judaism (WRJ) Resolution on "Insuring the Future for Our Children," 1991

We will urge Congress to increase funding for the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG), which allocates money to states to improve the quality of child care and to help make care affordable for low-income families. In the First Session, Congress failed to provide any increase in childcare funding, even while only one in ten families who need child care assistance received any such assistance, according to the Children's Defense Fund

We will continue to express our concern about juvenile crime legislation. While we agree that the juvenile justice system is in need of reform, many of the leading proposals do more harm than good. We will urge Congress to forge responsible legislation that includes funds for rehabilitation and crime prevention programs.

We will support proposals for an expansion of the Children's Health Insurance Project (CHIP). CHIP is a program that allows federal and state governments to share the expense of providing health insurance to children in low-income families. We will also work to provide information and materials to activists who wish to encourage their state legislatures to take full advantage of the CHIP program. Many states are currently funding far fewer children than the federal program allows, thus failing to provide health benefits to tens of thousands of children for whom federal matching funds are available.


Civil Rights and Civil Liberties

All people will benefit when the barriers to true equality are removed.

— CCAR Resolution on "Affirmative Action," 1978

Affirmative action is increasingly under attack in Washington and, especially, on the state level. California and Washington State have already adopted legislation eliminating affirmative action programs statewide, and similar proposals will be considered in a number of states this year. We are committed to maintaining non-quota affirmative action programs, which have proved to be a successful vehicle aimed at correcting the past injustices of our nation. We will continue to defend affirmative action by focusing our attention on how to wage successful campaigns against those who would eliminate affirmative-action programs. We will support the work of Florida's Representing Equity and Equality (FREE) and other state coalitions working to preserve the principles of equal opportunity embodied by affirmative action.

We will support the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which prohibits workplace discrimination based on real or perceived sexual orientation. While discrimination on the basis of gender and race is legislatively prohibited, it is currently legal to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation in 41 states.

As technology becomes more sophisticated and Internet use continues to grow, efforts to monitor the flow of information in cyberspace will become a major issue. We will closely monitor legislative proposals — including the Children's Internet Protection Act (H.R. 896/S. 97), sponsored by Representative Bob Franks (R-NJ) and Senator John McCain (R-AZ), and the Child Internet Protection Act (H.R. 2560), sponsored by Representative Ernest Istook (R-OK) — regarding Internet censorship that may affect First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech.


Criminal Justice

Notwithstanding the ideals of our criminal justice system, there is growing evidence that race and poverty play a role in determining who gets arrested who gets a fair trial, and how those convicted are sentenced.

— URJ Resolution on "Race and Criminal Justice," 1999

Building on the new URJ and WRJ resolutions, we will support the Traffic Stops Statistics Act (H.R. 1443/S. 821), introduced by Representative John Conyers (D-MI) and Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ). This legislation, also known as the "Driving While Black" bill, is an important first step in the effort to combat racial profiling by law enforcement. We will continue to work against the death penalty, including supporting Senator Russell Feingold's Federal Death Penalty Abolition Act (S. 1917). We will call on congressional leaders of both parties to follow through and immediately fund the provision of the Crime Control Act of 1994 that provides for the accurate collection of comprehensive national data on instances of excessive force by police.

We will support legislation — such as the Crack-Cocaine Equitable Sentencing Act of 1999 (H.R. 939), sponsored by Representative Charles Rangel (D-NY) — to end the sentencing disparities between crack cocaine and powder cocaine.


Economic Justice

Judaism teaches us that poverty is destructive of human dignity and that helping people in need is a matter of fundamental principle, not an act of charity.

— URJ Resolution on "Our Economic Commitment to America's Poor," 1995

We will continue to support the Fair Minimum Wage Act (H.R. 325/S. 1805), introduced by Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA) and Representative David Bonior (D-MI) last session. This proposal would raise the minimum wage by yearly increments of fifty cents over the next two years. While other bills to raise the wage would improve the economic condition of American workers, the Fair Minimum Wage Act is the preferred proposal because of its expeditious timetable and independence from other initiatives (especially tax cuts aimed at wealthy Americans). We will also follow-up on the new URJ resolution supporting a "Living Wage," one which would place working families above the poverty line.

We will support President Clinton's initiative to increase the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). Expansion of the EITC would provide relief for 6.4 million working families struggling to make ends meet. Currently one of the federal government's largest programs to assist lower-income people, EITC gives back some or all of the federal income tax taken out of a worker's pay during the year. The President's proposal would improve the program in four ways: raising the maximum credit for families with three or more children by $500; expanding the credit for married, double-income couples; changing the phase-out rate in order to reward families struggling to work their way into the middle class; and simplifying the calculation of earned income in such a way that encourages savings.

We will also support the Hunger Relief Act (H.R. 3192/S. 1805), introduced by Senators Edward Kennedy (D-MA) and Arlen Specter (R-PA) in the Senate and Representative James Walsh (R-NY) in the House. It would take four important steps toward eradicating hunger in America. First, it would restore food stamp eligibility to approximately 600,000 legal immigrants now denied food assistance. Second, the legislation would update the "vehicle allowance," allowing food stamp recipients to own a working vehicle. Third, the Hunger Relief Act adjusts food stamp allotments to reflect more accurately actual household need. Finally, it would ensure that emergency food needs are met by authorizing an additional $100 million over five years for The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP).

We will urge the President and Congress to consider a measure that would maintain guaranteed monthly Social Security benefits while not threatening the dependability of those benefits. We will also urge Congress to "save Social Security first" and reject tax cuts that would limit the options in a reform of the Social Security system.


Education

The Commission on Social Action will continue to support public education by giving high priority to educating our nation's children and instilling a sense of urgency about the challenges facing public education in our synagogues, in the larger community, and among our elected officials.

— Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism, April, 1998

During the First Session, Congress reauthorized Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), defeating a variety of proposals — including education vouchers — which would have undermined the public schools. (First enacted in 1964, ESEA includes funding to help schools with a high number of students from low-income families. Chapter I of Title I of the ESEA is an $8.5 billion program that serves close to 10.5 million students in 50,000 schools and employs approximately 190,000 teachers.) In the Second Session, we will work to support the reauthorization of more than 40 other ESEA programs and will continue to carefully monitor the debate on education policy.

We will continue to oppose voucher proposals, a form of government subsidy given to parents for use toward tuition and other school-related expenses in public, private and parochial schools. The constitutionality of voucher programs is highly questionable — many have been found to amount to government funding of religious institutions, a violation of the First Amendment's Establishment Clause — and they come at the expense of the public school system.


Environment

Awe regard with reverence all of God's creation and recognize our human responsibility for its preservation and protection.

— CCAR "Statement of Principles," 1999

We will again call on Congress to mandate an increase of Corporate Auto Fuel Economy (CAFE) Standards by urging Congress to remove the Transportation Appropriations "rider" that has prevented a raise in these standards.

We will continue to support ratification of the Kyoto Protocol, the global climate change accord that was reached in December 1997. This Protocol calls on the U.S. to reduce carbon emissions to 7% below 1990 levels by 2010. The current stage of negotiations on rules for Kyoto will end next year, and we will continue to call on the United States and the international community to adhere to high standards of climate protection. We will support, as well, renewable energy funding and tax incentives for renewable energy.

We will support the Endangered Species Recovery Act (ESRA) (H.R. 960), sponsored by Representative George Miller (D-CA), which expands the protections for endangered species and includes financial incentives for private landowners to cooperate. We will oppose a related Senate measure (S. 1100) that would weaken the critical habitat section of the Endangered Species Act.

We will oppose the Regulatory Fairness and Openness Act of 1999 (H.R. 1592), introduced by Representative Richard Pombro (R-CA), which threatens to set allowable pesticide toxicity tolerances for children back to the level of adult white males (pre-1996). This harmful legislation could nullify some of the most important provisions of the Food Quality Protection Act of 1996, (which was enacted to set safety standards based on children), and would shift the burden of proof that a pesticide is harmful to the public and the EPA rather than the pesticide industry.


Foreign Aid

The Reform Jewish Movement has long argued for a strong overall U.S. foreign aid program to affirm America's interest in providing humanitarian and developmental assistance and in promoting democracy across the world.

— CSA Resolution on "Foreign Aid," 1994

We will urge continued U.S. support for, and mediation of, the Middle East Peace Process as Israel and the Palestinians engage in the difficult talks over "final status" issues, including Jerusalem, refugees, borders and water rights. On the Israel-Syria track, we will support a continued strong U.S. role and advocate for the aid necessary to help secure a lasting peace. The Reform Movement will continue to express our support for the Administration's valuable contribution to negotiations in the Middle East.

Building on a new URJ resolution, we will urge Congress and the Administration to support measures to foster peace and security and to protect human rights in Africa by increasing economic aid and alleviating the crushing debt burden of some of the world's poorest nations. The Reform Movement encourages both sustainable growth and fair trade, but only through concurrent improvement in education and health conditions. We will work closely with our coalition partners to examine ways in which our efforts can best assist those in greatest need.


Gun Control

Our task as Reform Jews is to challenge America's conscience and to heed the biblical injunction that we must not stand idly by the blood of our neighbor. We must embark on a moral offensive and send the message to our elected officials that we care deeply about [gun control] and will hold them accountable.

— URJ Resolution on "Ending Gun Violence," 1999

As Congress has consistently failed to act on the issue of gun control, unacceptable loopholes in our national restrictions on guns contribute to the prevalence of gun-related tragedy. The inclusion of gun control provisions in a Senate Juvenile Justice bill (S. 254) in the First Session seemed to be a breakthrough, but efforts to reconcile the differences between the House and Senate versions in a Conference Committee have stalled.

We stand committed to meaningful gun control legislation. We support closing the "gun show loophole" which allows individuals (as opposed to federally-licensed dealers) to sell guns from their "private collections" at gun shows without background checks for purchasers. We support a ban on the importation of high-capacity ammunition magazines by which foreign gun manufactures evade a 1994 moratorium on their domestic production. We support the licensing and registration of handguns to ensure that deadly weapons remain only in the hands of those lawfully eligible to own them.


Hate Crimes

A rash of recent hate crimes has shown the weakness of federal legislation which only covers hate crimes that are perpetrated because of prejudice toward those of a different race, national origin, color or religion occurring in a federally protected activity, such as voting, attending school or working.

— WRJ Resolution on "Hate Crimes," 1999

We will continue to support the Hate Crimes Prevention Act (HCPA) (H.R. 1082/S. 622) which will improve existing hate crimes statutes in two ways. First, the HCPA would expand federal authority to prosecute hate crimes that are committed on the basis not only of the categories listed above but also of the victim's real or perceived sexual orientation, gender or disability. Second, it would remove obstacles faced by federal law enforcement officers by permitting federal prosecutions without having to prove that the victim was attacked because he/she was engaged in a federally-protected activity. The HCPA passed the Senate in the First Session (as part of the Commerce, State, Justice Appropriations bill), but the House failed to act.


Health Care and Bio-Ethics

There is a need for the federal government to pass legislation to protect patients from the managed care industry abuses. Doctors and patients, not insurance companies, must make decisions about patient care. Medical care is not just another line item on the budget. Rather it is about saving and improving lives.

— WRJ Resolution on "Health Issues," 1999

We will urge the House and Senate to pass a meaningful Patients' Bill of Rights. Last session, the House took an important step toward such legislation with the passage of a strong bipartisan bill (H.R. 2723) that would hold HMOs legally accountable to mistreated patients. The Senate, however, passed a weaker bill (S. 6) that subjected legal accountability to unnecessary limitations. As the House and Senate bills are resolved in a Conference Committee, we will aggressively advocate for a bill that will: ensure patients full emergency room access; open medical communications without "gags"; provide for greater consumer involvement and increased access to specialty services; promise the right to a fair appeals process; and hold HMOs legally accountable for services provided and services denied.

We will work to increase the level of HIV/AIDS funding for research and care, and to obtain reauthorization of the Ryan White CARE Act during the budget process. We will also be active in pursuing health care reform legislation, including health care access, managed care reform, and medical records confidentiality protections, which will benefit those living with HIV/AIDS. We will continue work with the National Organizations Responding to AIDS (NORA), and other coalition partners, to secure better quality care and treatment for those living with HIV/AIDS.

We will monitor the bio-ethics debates, including those surrounding genetic science, physician-assisted suicide, and euthanasia. We will support proposals allowing for continued medical research- including human somatic cell nuclear transfer technology - while protecting against the misuse of technological advancements.


International Affairs

American participation, either direct or indirect, in the improvement of conditions in foreign countries, manifests American faith in the unity of mankind and contributes to the eventual establishment of a peaceful world.

— URJ Resolution on "Foreign Aid," 1963

We will urge Congress and the Administration to continue the American leadership role in the United Nations: by developing a foreign policy that recognizes the role of the U.N. and by paying the remaining $600 million in arrears the U.S. owes to the U.N. The Reform Movement will support an increase in the U.N.'s involvement overseas by promoting its work in human rights, hunger and poverty relief, and combating religious persecution.

Each year, approximately two million women and children are victimized by sexual trafficking. Trafficked women are typically kidnapped, purchased, or lured with false incentives for jobs and a better life. We will support the Trafficking Victims Prosecution Act of 1999 (H.R. 3244) and other legislation to combat trafficking of persons, especially into the sex trade, slavery, and slave-like conditions through prevention, prosecution and enforcement against traffickers, and through protection and assistance to victims of trafficking.

The past ten years have seen an organized campaign of terror — including mass torture, rape and murder — against the Christian population of Sudan. More than two million people have been killed as a result of genocide and famine, and tens of thousands continue to be enslaved as part of a jihad (Islamic holy war) against the southern, Christian population. We support the Sudan Peace Act (S. 1453/H.R. 2906), which aims to facilitate famine relief efforts and to establish a comprehensive solution to the war in Sudan.

We will support the Cuban Humanitarian Act (H.R. 230), which responds to the suffering of Cuban citizens by lifting the embargo on food and medicine in Cuba. A recent report by the American Association of World Health reiterated that the embargo has resulted in "unnecessary suffering and death" by severely restricting Cuba's access to necessary medicines and medical supplies.

We will support the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) (H.R. 434/S. 666) which helps countries make the transition to economic independence and self-sufficiency without jeopardizing humanitarian assistance and calls for an U.S.-Africa Free Trade Area by 2020. The House and Senate passed different versions of AGOA in the First Session; a Conference Committee is meeting to resolve the differences. We will urge the Conference Committee to accept the Senate language on debt relief and eligibility requirements, but the House language on the use of textiles.


Religious Liberties

We oppose any government role in the sponsorship of prayer, and vigorously oppose weakening the guarantee of religious freedom in the First Amendment.

— URJ Resolution on "First Amendment Rights," 1995

We will continue to oppose the so-called Religious Freedom Amendment to the Constitution (H.J.Res. 66), introduced by Representative Ernest Istook (R-OK). Although soundly defeated in the 105th Congress, this unnecessary and divisive amendment was reintroduced during the First Session. We will again make defeat of this dangerous plan — which threatens to trigger divisive battles over government-sponsored, tax-funded religion — a top priority. We will also oppose other attacks on the wall of separation between church and state, such as provisions in the Juvenile Justice bill (H.R. 1501) that would encourage the posting of the Ten Commandments in public schools.

We will work to protect the rights of religiously observant Americans, and of religious institutions. We will support the Workplace Religious Freedom Act (S. 1668), which would strengthen the right to religious accommodation in the workplace. We will work to craft legislation to provide the highest level of Constitutional protection for those seeking "free exercise" of their religion.

We will oppose the "Charitable Choice" provisions advanced by Senator John Ashcroft (R-MO) and others. These provisions would provide for virtually unchecked government funding of sectarian institutions. In particular, we will oppose the Charitable Choice Expansion Act (S. 1113) which would include a charitable choice provision in every social welfare bill.


Reproductive Rights and Women's Issues

We affirm the legal right of a family or women to determine on the basis of is its or her own religious moral values whether or not to terminate a particular pregnancy.

— CCAR Resolution on "Abortion," 1975

We will continue to urge the House and Senate to reject the Child Custody Protection Act (H.R. 1218/S. 661) which would make it illegal to transport a minor across State lines to obtain an abortion if she has not met the requirements for parental involvement in her state of residence. This deeply troubling attack on the right to choose passed the House of Representatives in the First Session.

We will continue to oppose the so-called Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act (S. 1692) which would effectively prohibit doctors from providing the best treatment for their patients and further erode a woman's constitutional right to choose. This bill passed the Senate in the First Session, although it did not garner the two-thirds majority necessary to override a presidential veto.

We will support the Violence Against Women Act of 1999 (VAWA II) (H.R. 1248/S. 245). This comprehensive bill would build on a 1994 statute by providing additional funding for anti-violence initiatives and setting tougher penalties for certain crimes against women. Its provisions would limit the effects of violence on children, provide funding for the prevention of sexual assaults, and provide funding and assistance for victims of domestic violence. We will also support the Battered Immigrant Women Protection Act of 1999 (H.R. 3083), which would expand the 1994 Violence Against Women Act to include currently unprotected groups of immigrant women and children.


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