News/Policy

Redistricting Bill Scheduled for State House Committee Vote on May 29

The Pennsylvania House Government Operations Committee, which heard testimony on gerrymandering issues earlier this year, is scheduled to vote on May 29, 2008 on a new consensus approach to reforming our redistricting methods. This is the only opportunity for Pennsylvania to change the gerrymander process before the 2010 census results are converted into new district lines for Congress, the State House and State Senate. JSPAN urges its readers to contact the members of the House Government Operations Committee immediately and to ask for their support of H.B. 2420. The contact list of members of the Committee is included below. H.B. 2420, introduced by Rep. Steve Samuelson (D – Lehigh County) and signed by eighty-seven other sponsors, was referred to the House Government Operations Committee on May 7. The Bill would amend the State Constitution to establish a new procedure for the required redistricting done every ten years: the Legislative Reference Bureau (“the Bureau”) would have the task of drawing district maps for U.S. House of Representatives and Pennsylvania Senate and House seats.

Urge Your Legislators to Stand Up for Public Education

In November 2007, the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania released a "Costing-Out Study", which finally offered answers to a long standing question: What does it take to provide a high quality education to every Pennsylvania student? According to Good Schools Pennsylvania, a statewide network of citizens who are informed and mobilized in support of public education, the study served as the first comprehensive audit of all 501 Pennsylvania school districts and revealed some sobering numbers: that $11,926 is the average level of funding required to ensure that every student reaches state standards, nearly $2,500 above what is currently being spent; that 474 out of 501 districts are underfunded under the current system; and that Pennsylvania needs to invest an additional $4.6 billion to adequately fund all school districts. The costing-out study reinforced that Pennsylvania needs a more effective and equitable statewide funding system. Good Schools Pennsylvania states that "there are promising signs that the study has gained traction and champions among lawmakers who recognize that an effective system of public education is an investment in our communities and the prosperity of our commonwealth." To continue the momentum from the costing-out study, legislators have recently advanced proposals for the creation of a Joint Legislative Commission on Public School Finance, which would help to raise awareness of the value of sound school funding policies.

Legislation Urging President Bush to Boycott Beijing Olympics

On April 9, Rep. Michael Capuano (D-MA) introduced legislation, H. Res. 1093, calling on President Bush to not attend the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics unless China persuades Sudan to end the violent attacks in Darfur, allows for the full deployment of the United Nations-African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) and ends arm sales to Sudan.

Reflections on Israel at 60

Burt Siegel is director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Philadelphia and a JSPAN Board member. My first Israel-related memory goes back to my early childhood. My family was, by most late 40’s standards, quite Zionist-oriented. I recall their frequently playing a 78 recording of Al Jolson singing Hatikvah and, on the other side of the record, a stirring, patriotic song entitled simply Israel, based on the music of the wedding classic “Chussen Kaleh Mazal Tov”. My father regularly raised money for Israel from Bayonne, New Jersey’s many Jewish merchants. I recall going into stores and offices with him and looking at the brochures he would leave behind of good looking young Jews in shorts, holding hoes or guns while rebuilding the Jewish homeland. No Jews that I knew in Bayonne looked anything like that, I can assure you, and so this Israel must have been a magic land where Jews were tough and lean and knew how to use guns. My friends and I weren’t even allowed Red Ryder Air BB rifles advertised in the back of our comic books, because we “might shoot somebody’s eye out with it”. Later on a friend of my father’s told me that some of the money they raised had been used to purchase weapons to be used by the Haganah, and I was thrilled that he had played some small role in the creation of the state.

M.J. Rosenberg: Dreams and Reality

As readers of this column know, I often refer to the organizations which constitute the Israel lobby as the "status quo" lobby. I do that because, frankly, I view it as advocating very little beyond the status quo. Its entire raison d’être seems to be to ensure that everything stays just the way it is. True, the lobby pays lip service to the two-state solution and Israeli-Palestinian peace, but no more than that.

High School Can Prevent the Football Coach from Continuing to Join with his Team in Organized Group Prayer

After 23 years of leading his team in organized group prayer at pregame dinners and just prior to the start of football games, Coach Marcus Borden was ordered to stop by administrators of the East Brunswick High School in New Jersey. Although he quit leading the prayers, he invited the team captains to solicit the team members to see if they wanted to continue the practice of praying in a student led effort. The coach then began to bow his head and “take a knee” with the team as a member of the team led the prayer. Again, school officials intervened, ordering him to stop. He sued, claiming that his First Amendment rights were being violated. Remarkably, a federal district court judge in Newark agreed with the coach and the school board appealed. This week, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit sided with the school board. Based on the history of the coach’s conduct, a three-judge panel ruled that the coach’s acts cross the line and constitute an unconstitutional endorsement of religion. Although the coach claimed to be engaging only in an act of team unity, “a reasonable observer would perceive his actions as endorsing religion,” whether or not that was his intent. The opinion was written by former Pennsylvania Attorney General D. Michael Fisher and was joined by Judges Theodore McKee and Maryanne Trump Barry. Both McKee and Barry wrote separate concurring opinions. McKee suggested that he would have issued a broader ruling finding the coach’s conduct violative of the Establishment Clause regardless of his history of prior prayer with the team. Judge Barry joined Fisher’s opinion on the narrower ground. JSPAN participated in the case by joining with the American Jewish Congress in a friend of the court brief to the Court of Appeals. The JSPAN brief, written by attorney Marc Stern, relied on a Supreme Court case decided last year holding that when public employees act pursuant to their official duties, their speech is not entitled to protection under the First Amendment. JSPAN told the court that “over and above the compelling interest of the school in complying with the Establishment Clause …, public schools have an important interest in preserving the perception amongst students and parents that the schools and their employees are neither political nor religious partisans.”

Would I Break the Law?

As part of the Seder ritual, we read about Shifrah and Puah, two midwives, who begin the defiance of Pharaoh by refusing to obey his orders to kill the children of the Israelites. The Haggadah is unclear whether Shifrah and Puah were Jewish – whether they were Israelite midwives, or non-Jews who were merely midwives to the Israelites. But one thing is clear, we are to honor Shifrah and Puah for their compassion regardless of whether they were members of our tribes. We honor them for their willingness to break Pharaoh’s unjust law. At your Seder this year, ask who among the assembled would be willing to break the laws of this country to perform a compassionate moral act? If you need an example to start the discussion, you might start with Thomas Cardinal Mahoney, Archbishop of Los Angeles. He announced that he would be willing to break American immigration laws that he considered to be immoral. Specifically, Cardinal Mahoney was referring to a draconian enforcement-only immigration bill adopted by the United States House of Representatives. That bill would have required the deportation of all non-citizens currently in this country without legal documentation, widely believed to be many more than 12 million people. Fortunately, the bill died in the Senate. What would you do if a law like that passed? Cardinal Mahoney proclaimed that he would provide sanctuary to individuals and families, even if he would be sent to jail for doing so. Like the old Hebrew National commercial, Cardinal Mahoney asserted that he and Catholics like him had an obligation to adhere to a higher standard.

For We Were Strangers: A Short History

The story of Passover is a lesson in the oppression of strangers. Although Pharaoh welcomed Joseph’s father and brothers to Egypt in a time of famine and gave them space to settle in the land of Goshen, the Israelites remained strangers. They were, after all, shepherds in a land of people who worshiped sheep. Their separation thus served to minimize religious and ethnic conflict. Over time, the separation of the Israelites from Egyptian society became a liability. It was fear that these strangers would align with Egypt’s enemies that led Pharaoh to impose slavery on them. The transition from protected guests to slaves reflects what we have seen too often in history – the tendency of all societies to oppress the stranger.

Rally to Defeat SB 1250, "The Marriage Protection Amendment"

Opponents of Pennsylvania Senate Bill 1250, the so-called "Marriage Protection Amendment" to the Pennsylvania Constitution, will rally at the Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg on Monday, May 5, 2008. A similar rally on May 14, 2006, was part of a successful effort to oppose the efforts of those who would have inscribed discrimination into the Pennsylvania Constitution under the guise of protecting our families. JSPAN, a founding member of the Value All Families Coalition and the Faith Coalition for Pennsylvania Families, continues to oppose the relentless and unyielding efforts of those who would seek to impose their bigotry and intolerance upon all of us, and, in the process, do grievous harm and injury to Pennsylvania’s families and children. In the fight to preserve our rights and liberty, we must remain as tireless and vigilant as those who would seek to take them away. Senate Bill 1250 would amend Article I, section 29 of the Pennsylvania Constitution to provide that, as to "Marriage," "No union other than a marriage between one man and one woman shall be valid or recognized as marriage or the functional equivalent of marriage by the Commonwealth." The bill was voted out of the state Senate Judiciary Committee on March 18th, by a vote of 10 to 4, under the condition that more public hearings would be held before it was sent to the full Senate. Next, it goes to the Senate Appropriations Committee, which will hold a public hearing that has not yet been scheduled. In order to become law, the amendment would need to be approved not only by the current Senate and General Assembly, but also by the 2009-2010 Legislature, whose members will be elected in November. If both the 2009-2010 House and Senate approve it, the bill then would have to be approved in a statewide referendum in November 2009.
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