In October of last year, Rabbi Saperstein, the Director of the RAC and an expert on church-state law, and Oliver Thomas, a noted First Amendment scholar and lawyer, partnered to lay out five rules candidates and the public should follow concerning faith in the upcoming election. The op-ed does not seek to remove religion from politics, but rather it discusses appropriate and inappropriate uses of faith in political campaigns.
For instance, the Constitution forbids the use of an explicit or implicit religious test for office, and tax regulations prohibit religious leaders from coercing citizens to vote in a specific manner by invoking religion. While clergy have the right, and obligation, to inform their congregants about the social issues we face today, as 501(c)(3) organizations they are forbidden from opposing or supporting political candidates.
But we all know that faith has been, and will continue to be, a prominent subject in the current presidential election. Unfounded speculation over President Obama’s faith continues to swirl, as does uneasiness around Gov. Romney’s Mormon faith. So, what have been some of the hot stories about religion in the race for the White House lately?
- Last Thursday, First Lady Michelle Obama spoke at a conference of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Nashville, Tennessee, and impressed upon the churchgoers that their political involvement remains essential to her husband’s campaign. President Obama received 96% of the black vote in the 2008 election.
- Gov. Romney and his family, devout Mormons, attend church for up to three hours most Sundays, and he previously served as the equivalent to a bishop in the Mormon church. While the Mormon faith is the fastest growing religion in the nation, it continues to be viewed with suspicion in the United States. Voters’ concerns about Gov. Romney’s Mormonism invoke memories of similar concerns about President Kennedy’s Catholicism and the potential for papal influence.
- Education policy has made a surprising comeback as an election issue in the form of vouchers, federal money which can be used for tuition at private and religious schools. Gov. Romney announced his strong support for school voucher programs and President Obama went against his stated opposition to vouchers and reauthorized funding for the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, the only voucher program run by the federal government.
- The Supreme Court’s historic ruling on President Obama’s signature legislative achievement, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, signals new battles down the road, including battles drawn on religious lines over contraception and reproductive health coverage.
As religion remains as pervasive as ever in our political system, it is important to remember that while our nation is founded upon religious freedom, the government is forbidden from favoring one religion over another, or religion over no religion, and cannot interfere with personal expression of faith. The Reform Movement remains committed to protecting religious freedom and preserving the separation of church and state, while recognizing that the faith of political candidates can be discussed appropriately.
What a way to end this term at the Supreme Court! Yesterday, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) was upheld in a 5-4 vote, with Chief Justice John Roberts writing the majority opinion. His opinion explained that the penalty imposed on an individual for not buying insurance would be considered a “tax,” but individual states have the right to deny the expansion of Medicaid, and the funds that come with that expansion. This decision has broad implications: Thousands upon thousands of people will no longer be denied coverage because of pre-existing conditions, millions of young adults will continue to be eligible for insurance through their parents’ plans, and women across the country will be able to access preventative care programs covered in the Women’s Health Amendment. Without a doubt, the last case handed down by the Court this term was the most anticipated, and possibly most important, case of decade.
As the hype over the ACA dies down, we’re left with quite a roster of other major cases that were considered this year at SCOTUS:
- Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC: The issue at hand in this case was whether a teacher at a private religious elementary school who teaches the full secular curriculum but also leads students in prayer and teaches religion class qualifies for the “ministerial exception,” which exempts certain religious institutions from federal laws prohibiting workplace discrimination. The Supreme Court unanimously overturned an earlier ruling and held that there is a “ministerial exception” from anti-discrimination laws. This decision marks the first time the Supreme Court has affirmed a wide range of federal Circuit Court opinions upholding the doctrine of the “ministerial exception.”
- Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs: In a 5-4 decision released this week, the Justices established that a mandatory minimum sentence of life without parole is unconstitutional for those under 18, and could be defined by the Eighth Amendment as “cruel and unusual punishment.”
- Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co.: This case posed the question of whether Indonesian villagers can sue Exxon Mobil Corp for alleged murder and torture committed by soldiers that the oil company hired to provide security for a natural gas plant. More broadly, the question was: whether defendants other than individuals can be held responsible in U.S. courts for overseas human rights violations, crimes against humanity, torture, murder, or other universal law violations. At the RAC, we were particularly interested in this case because the decision might give us insight into how exactly the Supreme Court views corporations and the way they should be treated under U.S. law (which is especially relevant as we consider the implications of Citizens United on campaign finance in the 2012 presidential elections). However, in conference in March, the Justices decided to add another question to the case: Whether and under what circumstances the Alien Tort Statute allows U.S. courts to consider and recognize violation of its laws within another country’s borders without violating that country’s sovereignty. Therefore, the case will be re-argued next term.
- United States v. Jones: The justices decided that, in this case, police violated the Constitution by not getting a warrant before using a global position system (GPS) device to track a suspect’s movements. The decision brings the Fourth Amendment prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures into the modern age. It also demonstrates that though the Founders could not have predicted today’s technology, the rights with which all Americans are endowed are timeless.
- Arizona v. United States: The justices were considering the constitutionality of Arizona’s 2010 immigration law, S.B. 1070, which was more far-reaching than current federal immigration policy. The question at hand was: Does S.B. 1070 “complement or hinder federal immigration policy”? The Court’s general finding (according to a 5-3 decision) was that federal immigration law preempts state immigration law, although the Court neither considered nor ruled on the provision of the law that possibly encourages racial profiling.
While the cases that were considered at the Court were important this year, it’s also worth considering how the Court’s reputation has fared under public scrutiny; more than ever before, the Court has been tainted by accusations of increasing politicization. A CBS/New York Times poll showed that 76% of respondents believed that the justices allowed their decisions to be influenced by their personal opinions instead of solely on legal analysis. Regardless of whether this sentiment is based on reality, these numbers show that the Court’s reputation is at risk.
As of June 7, public opinion of the Supreme Court had dropped to 44% (public approval of the Court was at 66% in the 1980s and 50% in 2000). Lee Epstein, a professor at the University of Southern California, observes that the decline in the court’s public opinion might be correlated with a general distaste for “big government,” or it could be based on the more specific phenomenon of highly politicized decisions with narrow votes and significant effects (particularly in Bush v. Gore and Citizens United).
While the Supreme Court Justices will take a much-deserved recess until the next term starts in October, here at the RAC we will continue to fight for the vulnerable populations that are affected by each of these suits: the uninsured, the immigrants in our communities, those incarcerated in factories of harsh retribution, violence and criminal activity instead of centers of rehabilitation, those whose privacy is violated by the government or who wish to practice their religion without interference from their own government.
Perhaps you, like myself and many others, were perched in front of your computer, a television, or in front of the Supreme Court itself yesterday, awaiting the decision on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). As I sat at my desk, attempting to quell flickering speculations about the ruling and its consequences for Americans, the decision that suddenly flashed before my eyes was both unexpected and most welcome: “We have a health care opinion.” I froze. “The individual mandate survives as a tax.”
In a 5-4 decision, Chief Justice Roberts, who wrote the majority opinion, along with Justices Kagan, Sotomayor, Breyer and Ginsburg, ruled that the minimum coverage requirement, the provision that most Americans must purchase health insurance by 2014 or pay a penalty, is a tax and is thus an appropriate expression of Congress’ power.
The federal government’s main justification for the individual mandate was Congress’ power in the commerce clause to regulate interstate commerce. But Chief Justice Roberts opined that the application of the commerce clause depends upon the existence of a market to regulate and, he wrote, the health insurance market is not already in existence. Instead, he argued, the government would be forcing individuals to create such a market, so compelling people to purchase a specific good goes beyond Congress’ authority as allowed by the Constitution. Moreover, his line of argument follows that if the individual mandate is upheld, a slippery slope would ensue in which the government could force individuals to purchase anything it deems “good” for society, such as broccoli (sorry to rehash a hackneyed analogy).
Even though the federal government’s main argument about the commerce clause failed, Chief Justice Roberts found a different argument to sustain the constitutionality of the individual mandate: Congress’ taxing power. Chief Justice Roberts held that the penalty individuals would face for refusing to purchase insurance is a tax, and the power of Congress to collect taxes is soundly undisputed. With this decision, the issue of severability, whether the rest of the law could remain standing if the individual mandate was found unconstitutional, was null and void.
Another main issue before the Court was the constitutionality of the Medicaid expansion. The ACA sought to extend Medicaid coverage to more low-income individuals by requiring states to cover a wider range of these populations or risk losing all of their federal Medicaid funds. The Court ruled that the Medicaid program may be expanded, but should a state refuse to participate, the federal government cannot remove all of its Medicaid funds; rather, it can only refuse to offer the additional funds for the program’s expansion. This aspect of the ruling raises questions as to whether the federal government will be able to fully implement the Medicaid expansion as it attempts to provide health care to more individuals.
Overall, the ruling was not only a victory for the Obama Administration, but it was also a victory for Americans: for those seniors who will be able to afford their prescription drugs, for those individuals who will not be denied coverage because of a pre-existing condition, for those young adults who can continue to stay on their parents’ insurance, and for those low-income individuals who will not have to choose between their health and their rent.
The ACA can now bring the health insurance system closer to reflecting our highest aspirations, not the lowest common denominator.
Our Reform congregations have been at the forefront of advocacy on behalf of health insurance reform in their states and at the national level. They have led the faith community’s call to heed the lesson of Maimonides, the revered medieval Jewish physician and scholar, who placed health care first on his list of the ten most important communal services that a city should offer its residents (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot De’ot IV: 23). We are proud of the work they have done.
Today, the Supreme Court has spoken and spoken powerfully. Now our nation must move forward together.
On Friday, we celebrated 40 years of Title IX, a section of the Education Amendments of 1972 that prohibits sex-based discrimination in education programs and activities that receive federal funding. To commemorate the anniversary, the Senate Committee on Help, Education, Labor and Pensions held a hearing to recount Title IX’s successes over the past four decades. The American Association of University Women gathered four women, each pioneers in their fields, to testify before the committee:
- Billie Jean King, former professional tennis player and founder of the Women’s Tennis Association
- Nancy Hogshead-Makar, 1984 Olympic swimming gold medalist and professor at Florida Coastal School of Law
- Dr. Mae Carol Jemison, a physician and the first woman of color to fly in space
- Rear Admiral Sandra L. Stosz, Superintendent of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, the first woman to head a U.S. service academy
The women shared their own experiences with Title IX as well as observations of Title IX’s effect in their fields today.
Hogshead-Makar wore many hats in her testimony before the committee: collegiate athlete and direct beneficiary of Title IX; law professor and Senior Director of Advocacy at the Women’s Sports Foundation; and parent of a son and twin daughters. Hogshead-Makar spoke from all three perspectives to in addressing a common misconception that Title IX funding for women’s sports takes away funding from men’s opportunities. She shared a personal story to illustrate how society should respond to this complaint: Upon the birth of her twin daughters, Hogshead-Makar’s then 5-year-old son complained his new sisters were taking away from his time with Mom and Dad. It was true, Hogshead-Makar admitted, but did not warrant grievance. Rather, her son now had to adapt to the change and share family resources with his siblings. The girls were new but equally important parts of their family. This, Hogshead-Makar argued, is how we should think of Title IX: Funding women’s athletics came second, but it should not be treated as secondary.
Title IX extends beyond the world of sports. It also equalizes opportunities in employment, protects against sexual harassment and assault, and expands women’s access to STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education, a field previously driven by men. Dr. Jemison, an astronaut, acknowledged Title IX’s role in integrating women not only into the Space Program but also into STEM classrooms and education programs. Further, Dr. Jemison reminded us that Title IX is not designed solely to benefit women. In the 40 years since Title IX’s implementation, men have made strides in several areas of health care that were historically dominated by women.
The Reform Movement has long championed the values laid out in Title IX and other anti-discrimination laws. In 1976, the Union for Reform Judaism passed a resolution affirming its support for women’s equality and prohibiting sex-based discrimination in placement procedures in the rabbinate. The resolution also commended Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion as the first Jewish seminary to ordain women as rabbis, as well as called for programs and education to “secure the equality of women within congregational life.”
More broadly, equal opportunity and support for women in any given field brings the potential for twice as many bright, innovative minds; there is no reason not to take full advantage of America’s talent pool. Title IX’s 40 years boast a wealth of triumphs, and we can (and should!) look forward to continuing to close the gap.
Rachel Chung is a participant in the Machon Kaplan Summer Social Action Internship Program. She is interning at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.
Photo courtesy of the U.S. Senate.
This summer, as a way to bring the community together and encourage discussion, Temple Israel is hosting a series of guest speakers during Friday night services. The speakers come from a wide range of ages and experiences, from young women still in high school to some of the more … let’s say “mature” members of the congregation, and while these experiences differ, each speaker has at least one thing in common: Temple Israel.
As the congregation prepares to move next year to the new building at Sterling Ridge, this summer seemed like a good time to bring members together to share their memories of their lives at the Cass Street building. And while the first session of the Summer Speaker Series wasn’t about the building itself, Temple Israel played an important role nonetheless. After all, what good is a building without its people?
This past April, high school students Laura Gilinsky, Sydney Robinson, Caroline Rockman, Rachel Sullivan and Lindsey Thomas joined thousands of other teenagers from around the world as they embarked on the March of the Living, an annual pilgrimage that many young Jews make to concentration camps in Poland, where they participate in a march from Auschwitz to Birkenau in remembrance of the millions lost to the Holocaust.
Last week the girls spoke to the congregants about their experiences at the camps and shared photos of their journey.
“I feel like it’s my responsibility, and our responsibility, to encourage all high school juniors and seniors to put this on your bucket list and make sure it happens,” said Sydney Robinson, whose grandfather, Sam Fried, is a Holocaust survivor.
[A slideshow of photographs taken by Laura Gilinsky, Sydney Robinson, Caroline Rockman, Rachel Sullivan and Lindsey Thomas on their March of the Living trip in April 2012.]
I was particularly struck by the images of eyeglasses and shoes, thousands of discarded eyeglasses and shoes, piled up like so much garbage, each representing a life lost in that awful place. The sheer magnitude of death, as illustrated by such ubiquitous items that we on a daily basis take for granted, was staggering. Overwhelming, even. For photographs to be able to elicit such strong emotions, thousands of miles from where they were taken, I can only imagine how powerful of an experience it truly was for these girls, and the thousands of others who were there with them.
Laura Gilinsky seemed to choke up as she described a scene toward the end of their time in Poland, at Treblinka, in which a choir that had gone on the trip, volunteered to sing:
“They sang the song from The Prince of Egypt, ‘There Can Be Miracles,’ and at the end of them singing a butterfly flew in front of them. There were these yellow butterflies on this beautiful day in Treblinka, which you think is unfitting, but it was … everybody stopped and gasped.”
Laura then read a poem, which she said someone told them about afterward, called “The Butterfly,” which I’ve posted below. It was written by a man named Pavel Friedman, who was imprisoned at Thereisenstadt, a concentration camp in what is now the Czech Republic in 1942. He was later deported to Auschwitz, where he died, and his poem was found after the camps were liberated.
“The Butterfly,” by Pavel Friedman
The last, the very last,
So richly, brightly, dazzling yellow.
Perhaps if the sun’s tears would sing
against a white stone …
Such, such a yellow
Is carried lightly ‘way up high.
It went away I’m sure because it wished to
kiss the world good-bye.
For seven weeks I’ve lived in here,
Penned up inside this ghetto.
But I have found what I love here.
The dandelions call to me
And the white chestnut branches in the court.
Only I never saw another butterfly.
That butterfly was the last one.
Butterflies don’t live in here,
in the ghetto.
[Laura Gilinsky, Sydney Robinson, Caroline Rockman, Rachel Sullivan and Lindsey Thomas discuss their experiences on the March of the Living at Temple Israel on June 1, 2012]
I joke that every Jewish holiday basically follows three main tenets: They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat. And while some may consider it flippant, I believe the same holds true for the Holocaust, and, indeed, should be the motto of the Jewish people: “They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat.”
This sentiment seems to have been echoed by Trudy, the Survivor who accompanied this year’s group on the March. Laura Gilinsky called Trudy “the strongest, sweetest old woman you have ever met.” Laura recalled the old woman’s words to those teens who had broken down in tears while touring Auschwitz: “It’s okay. We won. They didn’t win. You don’t have to cry. We’re still here.”
And she’s right. We are still here. In the face of everything done to us over hundreds and thousands of years, we’re still here. The March of the Living, which coincides with Yom Hashoah, is about more than a remembrance of the dead. It’s a celebration of our continued existence.