JSPAN Supports the Availability of Section 8 Housing Vouchers

(This article has been modified from the original.)

Religious Liberty on Trial: JSPAN's Far-Reaching Legal Briefs in Support Both Free Exercise and Establishment Clause Principles

by Ted Mann, JSPAN Board member Blowing your horn, patting yourself on the back, is not an admirable trait. But I hope the reader will agree with me that every once in a long while it is permissible, even admirable -- especially if it is not my horn that’s blown, but JSPAN’s. So here goes.. Two weeks ago, for the fourth time in a year and a half, JSPAN became an amicus, a ”friend of the court”, in religious liberty litigation. Count them: Opposing inclusion of “intelligent design” theory as an alternative to evolution in high school biology courses, opposing the Redevelopment Authority’s attempt to transfer property valued at more than $800,000 to a religious institution for the construction of a “faith based” elementary school, supporting a school district in New Jersey in its effort to stop a high school football coach from kneeling and bowing his head as the team prays before a game, and most recently, opposing home-schooling parents in their claim that it violates their religious beliefs to allow the Department of Education to determine whether they are meeting the state’s secular educational requirements.

Marshall Dayan Presents The Jewish Perspective on the Death Penalty

On Wednesday evening, April 11th, at Congregation Beth Am Israel in Penn Valley, and again on Thursday evening, April 12th, at the Germantown Jewish Centre, JSPAN policy expert Marshall L. Dayan spoke about the Jewish Perspective on the Death Penalty. Dayan, State Strategies Coordinator for the ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project, focused the first program on a discussion of Jewish perspectives derived from traditional Jewish teaching. Noting that many advocates of the death penalty rely on biblical text, Dayan cautioned against reading that text out of context and without the benefit of generations of scholarly interpretation. For example, the "eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth" language often cited in support of the death penalty is taken from text relating to monetary compensation for damages, not capital punishment for criminal conduct. Moreover, in order for a murder to qualify for capital punishment under traditional Jewish law, it must have been committed intentionally. Thus, the "felony-murder rule" that accounts for a substantial percentage of the capital cases in the United States today (and a disproportionate percentage of the capital cases involving minorities) would not qualify as a capital offense under traditional Jewish law. A "felony-murder" is a murder committed in the course of committing another felony. For example, if someone took a gun and robbed a bank, that would be armed robbery, a felony (major crime). If during the course of that armed robbery someone died, that would constitute felony-murder, a capital offense. That would be true even in the case of a bystander who died suddenly from a heart attack induced by the shock and stress of the robbery, where the robber clearly did not intend to kill the victim. Dayan observed that under Jewish law there were strict procedural requirements that applied to capital cases, and that under rabbinic tradition there was a heightened effort to avoid imposing a sentence of death. Thus, at least two eyewitnesses to the crime were required. Each eyewitness had to inform the person about to commit the criminal act that doing so would result in his being condemned to die, and the person about to commit the crime had to respond that he understood the consequences of his actions and committed the crime anyway. Circumstantial evidence, upon which so many cases today are decided, was not admissible evidence under traditional Jewish law. So, where a witness saw one man run into a building and saw another man running after the first man with a knife and following him into the building, and then saw the second man run out of the building with blood on his knife, and then saw the first man lying dead and bleeding in the building, that witness could not testify at all because he did not see the man with the knife stab the man who was dead.

JSPAN Joins Jewish Coalition for Immigration Reform

On March 20, JSPAN and more than thirty other national, regional and local Jewish organizations sent a letter to congressional leaders urging them to pass fair and workable immigration reform, and to conduct the debate in a respectful and civil manner that will counter anti-immigrant bigotry. The letter, spearheaded by HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, articulates the immigration reform principles that JSPAN supports. It was addressed to Speaker of the House Pelosi and was also sent to House Republican Leader Boehner, Senate Majority Leader Reid and Senate Minority Leader McConnell. JSPAN supports the principles enunciated in the HIAS letter, but in addition, would condition amnesty for undocumented aliens on certification by the President or the Congress that our southern border has been made secure.

A Letter to a Colleague

The American Jewish Committee recently stirred up an emotional debate across the organized Jewish community when it featured on its Web site an essay titled "'Progressive' Jewish Thought and the New Anti-Semitism" by Alvin H. Rosenfeld, an English professor and director of the Institute for Jewish Culture and the Arts at Indiana University. Rosenfeld's essay claims that public criticism of Israel is detrimental, even comparing it to the prelude to the Holocaust.

Poll: Death Penalty Support in Minority in Pennsylvania

Penn State Survey Reveals Support for Alternatives Calls for a Moratorium on the Death Penalty in Pennsylvania Renewed
Following a national trend, a poll released on January 9, 2007, establishes that more Pennsylvanians prefer long sentences of incarceration rather than the death penalty as the punishment for even the worst murders.

As part of the annual Penn State Poll, the Center for Survey Research at the university’s Harrisburg campus found that only 42.9% of respondents supported the death penalty when presented with alternative sentences. 856 statewide participants were asked, “What do you think should be the penalty for persons convicted of murder?” 45.1% of those surveyed supported either life without parole (35.5%) or life with parole (9.6%). 10.4% answered, “Don’t know/Not sure” and 1.5% refused to answer. The poll was commissioned by the Jewish Social Policy Action Network, the Pennsylvania Council of Churches, the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, Amnesty International USA, and Pennsylvanians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

The Penn State Poll comes on the heels of the Death Penalty Information Center’s 2006 Year End Report, which was released on December 14, 2006, and is available at In the report, DPIC noted that this year’s Gallup Poll showed support for life without parole trumping the death penalty. The report also indicated a significant decrease in both death sentences and executions around the country and moratoria in ten different states.

As a result of the new polling data, JSPAN and our co-sponsors for the Penn State survey have renewed our call for a suspension of executions in the Commonwealth accompanied by a comprehensive analysis of the functionality of the death penalty.

“It’s the least our State government can do,” said Andy Hoover, community organizer for the ACLU of Pennsylvania. A similar effort was recently undertaken in New Jersey, resulting in a recommendation that the death penalty be abolished in that State. (See story below.)

Jewish Social Policy Action Network denounces Congressman Virgil Goode’s Islamophobic remarks...

...welcomes the use of the Koran for Congressman Elect Keith Ellison’s swearing in ceremony Today, the Jewish Social Policy Action Network (JSPAN) called on Congressman Virgil Goode to retract his statements regarding Muslim Americans. In a letter sent to his constituents, Goode criticized the planned used of the Koran for the ceremonial swearing-in of Congressman Keith Ellison, the firm Muslim member of Congress. Representative Goode continued by warning that “if American citizens don't wake up and adopt the Virgil Goode position on immigration there will likely be many more Muslims elected to office and demanding the use of the Quran.” In response, JSPAN asked Congressman Goode to reconsider his comments. “Each of the five times you were sworn into office, you placed your hand on the book that is most holy to you and took an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. Congressman Elect Keith Ellison deserves the same privilege,” stated Jeffrey Pasek, president of JSPAN. Noting that Congressman Goode’s district covers lands once owned by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, Pasek observed that “those two architects of American freedom fully understood that every citizen has an unconditional right to be accepted as a full and equal member of the political community, regardless of his faith.”

What the 2006 Elections Portend for the Jewish Agenda

On December 6, Rabbi Steve Gutow and Burt Siegel addressed a large turnout of JSPAN members and friends at Temple Beth Am in Abington to discuss the results of the 2006 Elections and their impact on efforts to realize the progressive Jewish agenda. Gutow, who is the Executive Director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, ran through the numbers in the national elections: 13 Jewish Senators and 30 Jewish Congressmen elected, a tally totally out of proportion to the 2% of the population who are Jewish; Democrats again sweeping the Jewish vote (87% according to exit polling); and the common understanding that unhappiness with the situation in Iraq drove the results. Gutow noted that many incumbents who survived won reelection in very tight races. Despite this, Gutow suggested that there is going to be no revolutionary change in direction on issues involving strong White House positions (Ed.: including Iraq and issues that speak to the so-called “base”). Democrats may hope to advance just a few issues (they need to ”keep it simple”, said Gutow), particularly where they can secure sufficient Republican support to overcome a veto. These could include minimum wage, immigration, stem cell research, and a limited ethics initiative such as disclosing “earmarks” (an amendment to a Bill that authorizes funds for a Congressman’s pet project). Broader efforts at ethics reform tend to dry up within a few weeks in Washington, said Gutow.

Conservative Judaism Approves Gay Rabbis and Unions: What will it mean?

Following years of debate and study, the highest legal body in Conservative Judaism voted this week to approve the ordination of gay rabbis and the celebration of same-sex commitment ceremonies. Although the action was denounced by many traditionalists, it follows what has been the accepted practice in the Reform and Reconstructionist communities for more than a decade.

Can a High School Prevent the Football Coach from Praying with the Team?

School boards have an absolute right, consistent with the First Amendment, to insist that their employees not participate even symbolically in the prayer activities of their students, according to a brief that JSPAN filed with the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. The case involves the East Brunswick New Jersey football coach who for 25 years, in open defiance of settled law, led his football team in prayer at pregame dinners and just prior to the game.
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