Why Is Pa. Ground Zero for Same-Sex Marriage Fight?

JSPAN Newsletter - October 4, 2013

Jewish Social Policy Action Network
In This Issue:
Newsletter: October 4, 2013
JSPAN Dates and Announcements
A Medical Genetics Symposium, cosponsored by JSPAN and the Katz Jewish Community Center in Cherry Hill will be held at the Katz Center on Thursday, October 10 from 7 - 9 PM. The program is free of charge and open to the general community. Pre-registration is encouraged by calling (856) 424-4444, extension 1281.

JSPAN's Social Justice Award, On November 25, JSPAN will present its Social Justice Award to Mark A. Aronchick, Esq. in recognition of his distinguished contributions to social justice and equality for all people.

The guest speaker will be Patrick J. Murphy, former Unites States Representative and current MSNBC contributor. The event will take place from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the Independence Visitor Center. Look for your invitation in the mail. For further details or to become a sponsor, contact Shelley Rappaport at 215-292-9575 or by email at jspan@jspan.org.


Why Is Pa. Ground Zero for Same-Sex Marriage Fight?
The Legal Intelligencer
October 1, 2013
By Saranac Hale Spencer

Pennsylvania has become the accidental epicenter for gay-rights litigation, with several suits cropping up over the summer in both state and federal court. Since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June in United States v. Windsor, gutting the federal Defense of Marriage Act, two federal suits and three state suits have sprung up in Pennsylvania around the state's version of DOMA.

The American Civil Liberties Union, with Hangley Aronchick Segal Pudlin & Schiller, was the first to file a case challenging the state's ban on gay marriage in July when it filed a carefully laid case on behalf of 11 same-sex couples and a widow. That case, brought in Harrisburg, was assigned to U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III of the Middle District of Pennsylvania.

The organization's strategy is "to bring good cases in jurisdictions where we can get a fair hearing. The Third Circuit is one of those places," explained Leslie Cooper, a lawyer for the ACLU.

Pennsylvania is also surrounded by states that have progressed on same-sex unions, she said, which forces the issue in this state.

In a similar vein, Mark Aronchick, who is working with the ACLU, said of Pennsylvania's judiciary, "We have excellent court systems, federal and state," with judges who don't shy away from tackling major issues. He characterized the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit as being nationally notable for ruling on big issues and said that courts in the state have led the way on civil rights for decades. And, he said, Pennsylvania is an outlier among states in the Northeast since it is alone in its staunch line against same-sex marriage.

Mark Aronchick, who is working with the ACLU to challenge Pennsylvania's ban on gay marriage, is being presented with JSPAN's Social Justice Award on November 25 - Ed.


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Poll Shows Major Shift in Identity of U.S. Jews
The New York Times
October 1, 2013
By Laurie Goodstein

The first major survey of American Jews in more than 10 years finds a significant rise in those who are not religious, marry outside the faith and are not raising their children Jewish - resulting in rapid assimilation that is sweeping through every branch of Judaism except the Orthodox.

"It's a very grim portrait of the health of the American Jewish population in terms of their Jewish identification," said Jack Wertheimer, a professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary, in New York. The survey, by the Pew Research Center's Religion & Public Life Project, found that despite the declines in religious identity and participation, American Jews say they are proud to be Jewish and have a "strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people."

However, the percentage of "Jews of no religion" has grown with each successive generation, peaking with the millennials (those born after 1980), of whom 32 percent say they have no religion.


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To view the complete Pew Research survey, click here.


JSPAN Urges Supreme Court To Ban Legislative Prayer
By Jeffrey I. Pasek, JSPAN Policy Center Chair

JSPAN has filed an amicus curiae brief in a new case challenging the practice of some local government bodies holding a prayer at public meetings. We argue that forcing people to be present for government prayer violates the First Amendment requirement of separation of church and state. See the entire brief here. - Ed.

Thirty years ago, over a strong dissent from Justice Brennan, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the right of the Nebraska legislature to use government funds to pay for a chaplain because of the "unique history" of legislative prayer in the United States. The issue of legislative prayer is once again before the Court in a case involving the Town of Greece, located just outside Rochester, New York. JSPAN filed a friend of the court brief urging the Supreme Court to reverse its prior opinion and ban government sanctioned legislative prayer.

Background of the case

In 1999, the Town of Greece changed its practice of beginning its monthly town board meetings with a moment of silence. Local clergy were invited to deliver prayers of the public address system. Until 2007, only Christian clergy were invited to deliver the prayers. After two local residents complained, four non-Christians were invited to deliver prayers over the next year. Since then, all of the prayer-givers were once again invited Christian clergy.

As might be expected, a substantial majority of the prayers in the record contained uniquely Christian language. Roughly two-thirds contained references to "Jesus Christ," "Jesus," "Your Son," or the "Holy Spirit." Within this subset, almost all concluded with a statement that the prayer had been given in Jesus Christ's name. Typically, prayer-givers stated something like, "In Jesus's name we pray," or "We ask this in Christ's name." Some prayer-givers elaborated further, describing Christ as "our Savior," "God's only son," "the Lord," or part of the Holy Trinity. One prayer, for example, was given "in the name of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who lives with you and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever." Other prayers, including ones not expressly made in Christ's name, spoke of "the role of the Holy Spirit in our lives," and celebrated Christ's birth and resurrection.

The lower court's ruling

The court of appeals struck down this prayer practice, reasoning that, however well intentioned, it conveys to a reasonable objective observer under the totality of the circumstances an official affiliation with a particular religion and thus violates the clear command of the Establishment Clause. This is known as the "endorsement" test, one that has been highly criticized by some Justices over the years.

Issues before the Supreme Court

In its appeal to the Supreme Court, the town argued that the Supreme Court should scrap the endorsement test and uphold the legislative prayers because the town had a neutral policy of permitting voluntary prayer-givers of any or not faith to deliver uncensored invocations. The Obama administration supported the Town's position, arguing that legislative prayer with sectarian content should be permissible if it does not proselytize or advance any one, or disparage any other, faith or belief. Under this test, the government argued that the prevalence of sectarian Christian references was irrelevant.

JSPAN's interest in the case

JSPAN took an interest in this case based upon the experience of its members, many of whom have lived at times in small towns or other communities where there were few other Jews. They have been subjected personally to coercive pressures to conform or stifle themselves when local governments have begun their proceedings with prayer, often prayer with a distinctly Christian message, but almost always with a message that is offensive to nonbelievers.

JSPAN's argument

Noting that America as a whole is religiously diverse, many of the 89,000 local communities in the United States are homogenous, dominated by a single denomination. Scholars have noted that America is not becoming more religiously integrated. JSPAN made this point by presenting the Court with a series of maps showing on a county-by-county basis how local communities are often dominated by a particular faith tradition or denomination, and at times even becoming a religious enclave.

While people who share a common religious belief or lifestyle have the right to live together, they cannot use that right to establish their religious faith. Religious minorities have the right to migrate and settle in new communities without having to sacrifice their religious freedom in the face of a dominant religious denomination. Local governmental bodies have enormous power over the rights of their citizens. Often, town councils, school directors and zoning boards adjudicate rights in ways that involve nearly unreviewable matters of discretion. When legislative prayers turn sectarian, members of religious minorities can feel coerced into participating or at least to remaining silent, lest they face virulent (and sometimes violent) backlash - which can include a negative response to the business they may be bringing to that governmental body.

JSPAN argues that that the courts have no business policing prayers; and that the proper solution is to permit town officials to pray as they wish before or after their meetings, but not as part of their official government business, with citizens present. Recognizing that the risk of coercion is much greater at the local level, JSPAN urged the Court either to prohibit legislative prayer in general or to limit it to the state and national level where it is less capable of being turned into a tool of abuse. The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear argument on the case on November 6th.


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Federal Workers Deserve Better Than Congress's Disregard
The Washington Post
September 30, 2013
By Editorial Board

HOWEVER THE antics over a federal shutdown turn out, they have made depressingly clear why so many talented Americans disdain the idea of working for their government.

Who would want to work for an employer so dismissive of its employees that it would heedlessly play games with their livelihoods? People in the employ of their country deserve better than the disregard - even contempt - demonstrated by Congress in its irresponsible brinkmanship.

One Hill staffer told us of having to tell a colleague on maternity leave - after having a baby less than three weeks ago - that she wouldn't get paid during a shutdown. A maintenance worker at the National Air and Space Museum told Post reporters that she had enough savings to manage for two or three weeks and then "I just pray."

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Our Democracy Is at Stake
The New York Times
October 1, 2013
Op-Ed by Thomas Friedman

This time is different. What is at stake in this government shutdown forced by a radical Tea Party minority is nothing less than the principle upon which our democracy is based: majority rule. President Obama must not give in to this hostage taking - not just because Obamacare is at stake, but because the future of how we govern ourselves is at stake.

What we're seeing here is how three structural changes that have been building in American politics have now, together, reached a tipping point - creating a world in which a small minority in Congress can not only hold up their own party but the whole government. And this is the really scary part: The lawmakers doing this can do so with high confidence that they personally will not be politically punished, and may, in fact, be rewarded. When extremists feel that insulated from playing by the traditional rules of our system, if we do not defend those rules - namely majority rule and the fact that if you don't like a policy passed by Congress, signed by the president and affirmed by the Supreme Court then you have to go out and win an election to overturn it; you can't just put a fiscal gun to the country's head - then our democracy is imperiled.


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Mental Distraction on Guns
The Forward
October 1, 2013

After each mass shooting by an obviously disturbed American who indiscriminately mows down innocent civilians, the National Rifle Association's Wayne LaPierre can always be counted on to put the problem in perspective. For LaPierre, the fact that Aaron Alexis shot and killed 12 people at the Washington Navy Yard on September 16 is yet another illustration of the terrible way America treats the mentally ill. "They need to be committed, is what they need to be, and if they're committed, they're not at the Navy Yard," he said on "Meet the Press."

When our Nathan Guttman asked representatives of Jewish organizations how the Navy Yard shooting impacted their efforts to promote gun control, William Daroff, director of the Washington office for the Jewish Federations of North America, told him, "We are looking at mental health issues as they relate to the shooting, and specifically enhancing behavioral health information technology, so that information between providers is shared and available."

Fine idea. Enhance technology. Go further. Fix a mental health care system that is hardly a system at all, one that allows an Aaron Alexis to fall through cracks so big, they become dangerous chasms.

But it's not going to make much difference in lowering the rate of violence associated with guns. The latest Gallup poll shows that nearly half of those surveyed blamed the failures in the mental health system for mass shootings, more than any other factor. Unfortunately, the facts just don't support that opinion.


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