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Church State Separation

Last week, Representative David Cicilline (D-RI) released a statement on the need for comprehensive LGBT non-discrimination protections. This statement came on the heels of the controversy related to Indiana’s and Arkansas’ Religious Freedom Restoration Acts (RFRAs) and their subsequent amendments, and serves as a reminder that LGBT people in America are not afforded the same rights and protections under broad state and federal laws as many other minorities.

After much anticipation, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that all public schools in the five boroughs will now be closed for two Muslim holidays: Eid al-Adha, which marks the end of the Festival of the Sacrifice, and Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan at the end of the summer (this closing will happen during summer school).

Although the City Council had approved a resolution to add these holidays to the school calendars in 2009, Mayor de Blasio (who has been in office a little over a year) has finally implemented this change.

Throughout February, we are commemorating Jewish Disability Awareness Month, a unique opportunity to highlight the ways that we as a community can be more inclusive and supportive of people with disabilities. It is important that we keep in mind all the many facets of how so many of the issues we work on at the RAC uniquely affect people with disabilities. For example, you might not know about the connection between the rights of students with disabilities and private school vouchers, but there are serious concerns regarding how the preponderance of "school choice" programs will affect these students.

Yesterday, President Obama spoke at the 63rd annual National Prayer Breakfast. The breakfast was attended by legislators, officials and clergy, including His Holiness the Dalai Lama and our new Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom. Rabbi David Saperstein. The President spoke of the power of faith as an inspiration and unifying force, as well as the way faith can be used as a wedge or a weapon to divide us. 

This week is so-called School Choice Week (January 25-31), when pro-vouchers advocates try to take over the narrative and promote their views that the privatization of public funding into vouchers and tax credits promotes educational opportunities and expands choices for parents and students.

They could not be more wrong.

Earlier today, the Supreme Court ruled 9-0 in Holt v. Hobbs, holding that under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), prisoner Abdul Maalik Muhammed could grow a half-inch beard while incarcerated in Arkansas. This decision upheld the fundamental religious freedom rights of all people, of all backgrounds, and is heartening in light of the current debate over religious exemptions. The Union for Reform Judaism, the Central Conference of American Rabbis and Women of Reform Judaism were pleased to join an amicus brief coordinated by American Jewish Committee on the side of Mr. Muhammed.

On Tuesday night, many in the Washington, D.C. community — myself among them — gathered at Adas Israel Congregation for an event convened by AJC (and cosponsored by the Religious Action Center) in solidarity and remembrance with the People of France and the Jewish Community.

It was a beautiful event, including speakers such as Jason Isaacson, AJC Associate Executive Director for Policy, Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) and His Excellency Gérard Araud, Ambassador of France to the United States.

The (secular) New Year brings new opportunities and new challenges in the world of Jewish social justice. The 114th Congress will convene on January 3, 2015 at noon. As we look towards what 2015 will bring, let’s take a moment to look back at 2014 through 14 RACBlog highlights.

This list is a mix of our most popular blogs or the blogs that represent landmark moments in our programming or observances. Don’t see your favorite blog here? Let us know in the comments!

The holiday of Hanukkah celebrates the victory of the Maccabee resistance over the Syrians led by Antiochus Epiphanes. The Syrians had taken over Jerusalem, desecrated the holy Temple, abolished Judaism, prohibited observance of Shabbat and the Festivals, in addition to outlawing critical Jewish rites like circumcision. The Jews were given two options by Antiochus, conversion or death.

The first night of Hanukkah -- 25 Kislev -- commemorates the day the Temple was renamed for the Greek god Zeus, and the resistance movement led by the Maccabees developed. The Maccabees, led by Mattathias and Judah, ousted the Syrians and restored Jerusalem to the Jewish people.

This time of year, it’s hard not to be drawn into conversations about the place of religious expression in public life. Christmas decorations abound, and religious minorities play up the celebration of a winter holiday to stake out a place in their communities. There is always a conversation about how important Hanukkah is in the Jewish tradition, probably a result of the effort I described to feel represented in a community or society where there is a widely-celebrated religious holiday.

Often, communities, local governments – particularly schools – also struggle with this question of representing different religions. The December Dilemma, as it is often called, describes the often uncomfortable conversation parents, students and other community members have to have about how not to make people feel alienated in their community.