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March 1, 2016

Alito Got It Right In Jewish Inmate Case

Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review a troubling lower court decision involving the religious liberty rights of an observant Jewish inmate from North Carolina.  In a powerful dissent, Justice Alito pointed out why the lower court was wrong and his fellow Justices should have taken up the case.supreme-court

Israel Ben-Levi claimed that the North Carolina Department of Public Safety (NCDPS) violated his rights under the Free Exercise Clause and Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) by denying his request to study Torah with two other Jewish inmates.  In rejecting his request, NCDPS asserted that the inmate misunderstood his own faith.  For a group to study Torah, NCDPS claimed, there must be ten Jewish men – a minyan – or qualified Jewish leader such as Rabbi.  The lower court agreed with this argument and also found Mr. Ben-Levi was not subject to future harm because he had been transferred to a prison with a Rabbi.

Justice Alito’s dissent correctly pointed out that this decision was discriminatory “[b]ecause NCDPS’s policy rests on its understanding of Jewish doctrine, the policy does not apply to other religions.”  Furthermore, it violates longstanding First Amendment case law against government interpreting religious doctrine:

[F]ederal courts have no warrant to evaluate  “the validity of [Ben-Levi’s] interpretations.” … By ignoring Ben-Levi’s actual beliefs and focusing solely on NCDPS’s understanding of Judaism, respondent and the courts below considered the wrong question.  

Although the Supreme Court’s rejection of the case does not approve of the lower court decision, we could not agree more with Justice Alito that “the Court’s indifference to this discriminatory infringement of religious liberty is disappointing.”

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January 15, 2016

Religious Freedom: Revolutionary and an American Strength

January 16th is the 2016 observance of National Religious Freedom Day, which was  established by Congress in 1993. It commemorates the Virginia General Assembly’s 1786 adoption of the landmark Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. Drafted by Thomas Jefferson, it was the blue print for the religious freedom protections found in the U.S. Constitution. Two-hundred thirty years later, however, these very liberties and principles are being challenged often in the name of“religious freedom.”


The Statute for Religious Freedom was a revolutionary change in the relationship between government and religion. It separated the two by prohibiting taxes supporting religion, providing free exercise of religion for all, and generally barring religious tests for civic participation. These principles became the law of the land with the adoption of the U.S. Constitution and First Amendment.

The Constitution’s religion clauses are the reason why a diversity of faiths has thrived in our nation for well-over 200 years. At their essence, the clauses prohibit government from sponsoring, supporting or sanctioning the imposition of religious doctrine or beliefs on citizens. They are a shield that safeguards the religious freedom of all Americans and our religious institutions.

Addressing these safeguards in her last opinion, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor astutely observed:

[T]he goal of the Clauses is clear: to carry out the Founders’ plan of preserving religious liberty to the fullest extent possible in a pluralistic society. By enforcing the Clauses, we have kept religion a matter for the individual conscience, not for the prosecutor or bureaucrat. At a time when we see around the world the violent consequences of the assumption of religious authority by government, Americans may count themselves fortunate: … Those who would renegotiate the boundaries between church and state must therefore answer a difficult question: Why would we trade a system that has served us so well for one that has served others so poorly?

Despite Justice O’Connor’s 2004 warning, today we find our Constitution’s religious freedom protections and principles misunderstood and under challenge. Most recently, leading candidates for the Presidency have said that Muslim Americans are unfit to serve as President and called for closing down Mosques, as well as banning Muslims from our shores. Such blatant religious intolerance is antithetical to our most core constitutional principles and unacceptable from any person of good faith let alone an individual aspiring to the Presidency. Our nation’s welcoming acceptance of all religious beliefs is a critical tool in countering those groups and nations that seek to impose their faith on others.

In the States, dozens of bills have been filed over the last several years in the name of “religious freedom” that would allow businesses – based on owners’ religious beliefs – to refuse customers. Although many of these bills are directed at our nation’s LGBT community, they also could be used to turn away customers because for example they are Hindu, Humanist, Jewish, Mormon or Muslim. Such legislation fundamentally misapprehends the purpose and scope of the Constitution’s religious freedom protections. They were never intended as a sword to impose religious beliefs on others. The Constitution most certainly safeguards the religious beliefs and exercise of clergy, houses of worship, and individuals, including beliefs and practices about marriage. But for our pluralistic society and marketplace to properly function, they should not be used as a vehicle for discrimination.

The Constitution also guarantees the right of parents to send their children to religious schools and religious institutions to perform social and charitable services in-line with their religious beliefs. But they in no way require the government to fund either. Over the last 20 years, however, Congress and state legislatures have implemented programs requiring taxpayers to fund religious schools and charitable organizations, including those that discriminate or proselytize. Compelling taxpayers to fund religious institutions with which they are not affiliated or agree is antithetical to our constitutional principles. Properly interpreted, the Constitution should bar such government funding of religion.

Our religious freedom protections are one of America’s greatest strengths and a key reason why our Nation is exceptional. On National Religious Freedom Day all Americans should take a moment to appreciate their individual religious liberty and reflect on the fact that millions around the world are regularly subject to religious coercion or persecution. These freedoms must not be taken for granted. Americans of good faith should push back on efforts to misuse them in ways that impose particular religious beliefs or tests on their fellow citizens.






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January 11, 2016

Five Things We Hope to Hear in the President’s State of the Union Speech

By Jonathan Green­blatt
CEO of the Anti-Defamation League

This arti­cle orig­i­nally appeared on The Huff­in­g­ton Post Blog

President Obama has said that his final State of the Union address on Tuesday, Jan. 12 will be framed around “the big things” he sees as being priorities in the years to come, rather than taking a policy-centric approach to the speech.  He has said that there is more work that needs to be done, and we agree.

In the run-up to the president’s address, we at the Anti-Defamation League asked members of our staff and some of our offices across the country for some insights on which issues deserve priority treatment during the president’s address. Our completed list follows.  ADL’s priorities for the president include: 1) Fighting prejudice and discrimination 2) welcoming asylum seekers and refugees while protecting national security 3) safeguarding religious freedom 4) Reinforcing a commitment to Iran sanctions, and 5) Supporting a strengthened Israel-U.S. relationship.

One caveat:  I should note that while we have numbered these, they are each separate and distinct issues and not ordered by importance. We believe each of these issues deserves priority treatment by the administration at this unique time in American history when we are faced with myriad challenges and opportunities.

Let’s hope the president takes on some of these issues as he heads into his final year in office.

Fighting Prejudice, Extremism and Discrimination  

Last week’s reaffirmation of federal education anti-discrimination laws,   coming at a time of escalating prejudice and violence against specific populations–  refugees, immigrants, and the Muslim community –  was a needed, welcome reminder for schools.  The Department of Justice also has used its authority under the 2009 Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crime Prevention Act of 2009 very effectively, but much more training and outreach for local police is needed. A 21st century policing model should include incentives for departments   to ensure they are reporting credible hate crime data to the FBI.  Criminal justice reform, including legislation now moving through Congress, must promote initiatives to interrupt the school to prison pipeline and efforts to build police-community relations.  And the President should use SOTU to further explain his new gun violence prevention initiatives, which were announced the same day ADL released a new report documenting that 2015 was the deadliest year for domestic extremist violence in the past 20 years, with firearms, overwhelmingly, the  extremist weapon of choice in 2015 – as in virtually every year.  Finally, we hope the President will press for essential legislation to restore crucial voting rights protections eliminated by the Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision.  If Congress fails to act, the November elections will be the first Presidential election in 50 years without the robust protections of the Voting Rights Act.

Welcoming Asylum-Seekers and Refugees AND Protecting National Security

Some Members of Congress have recently called for blocking President Obama’s plan to resettle up to 10,000 Syrian refugees. This is unfortunate on so many levels and inconsistent with our principles as a country whose origins and evolution are so bound up with generations of immigrants and refugees. The SOTU is an opportunity for the President to urge Congress to oppose efforts to halt U.S. refugee resettlement or to restrict funding for refugees, including Syrian refugees. We hope that the President will reiterate that America can keep its borders safe and, at the same time, welcome refugees that are fleeing the brutality of ISIS. The American screening process for refugees works – it is the single most difficult way to enter the United States.  America must not turn its back on its fundamental commitment to refugee protections.

As thousands of men, woman, and children have fled horrific realities of brutal violence and extreme poverty and hunger in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico, we also have serious concerns about the Administration’s recent campaign of home raids to round up and deport these families and adult asylum-seekers. We hope to hear President Obama speak out and direct the Department of Homeland Security to stop these raids and deportations.  Moreover, children and families fleeing for their lives must be protected and have access to legal counsel so that they can apply for asylum and protection in the United States.

 The President should also use the SOTU to encourage Congress to recommit to advancing comprehensive immigration reform that provides for a pathway to citizenship for immigrants, sound border security, safeguards against bias and discrimination, and family reunification.

 Protecting Religious Freedom, LGBT Equality and Reproductive Rights 

The President should commit to continuing his administration’s support for vigorous religious freedom advocacy on the federal, state and local levels, including opposing organized prayer.  At the same time, the administration should continue to demonstrate leadership on issues of importance to the LGBT community – which have resulted in positive, systemic changes in protections and equal rights for LGBT people – by making it clear that measures couched as supporting religious freedom that permit businesses to evade anti-discrimination laws and refuse service to people based on their sexual orientation or gender identity are not acceptable.  On the issue of reproductive rights, we understand that all eyes will be on the United States Supreme Court this year as it considers restrictions on Texas women’s clinics that we think are unnecessary and unconstitutional, but we hope the President will underscore his opposition to the Texas legislation and other similar initiatives.


Reinforcing America’s Commitment to Enforcement of Iran Sanctions 

Iran continues to take actions promoting policies and human right violations that profoundly conflict with core American values.  As we move closer to “implementation day,” when the IAEA would certify that Iran has met the requirements under the nuclear agreement to lift international sanctions, Iran’s ongoing human rights violations and its external aggressions must be taken into account when considering the prospect of normalized relations. The United States cannot look away from the institutionalized discrimination facing ethnic and religious minorities in Iran, including Baha’is, Christians, Jews, and Sunni Arabs. Their treatment ranges from quiet intimidation to systematic imprisonment. LGBT citizens fare far worse. The Iranian regime continues its decades-long support of terrorism against Israel and other countries, and routinely promotes fantastical anti-Israel and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, including mocking the Holocaust and accusing Israel of creating ISIS. It also has lent financial and military support to the murderous campaign of the Syrian government.

The U.S. should be vigilant in using existing sanctions targeting these practices and explore new tools that might be needed to target both human rights violations and JCPOA violations.

We hope the President will send a strong message Tuesday night to Tehran that there will be consequences to testing both the boundaries of the nuclear agreement and continuing its nefarious behavior in the region, and repressive policies toward its own people.

 Supporting a Renewed U.S.-Israel Relationship

Congress and the Administration recognize the unique security threats and challenges facing Israel and the President should reaffirm the unshakeable U.S. commitment to Israel and its security in the SOTU. Negotiations between the U.S. and Israel are underway for a new Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to ensure Israel is able to maintain its qualitative military edge over its adversaries. The current MOU provides $30 billion in assistance to Israel over a 10-year period and is set to expire in 2017.

 As he enters his last full year in office, President Obama clearly has a full plate.  He also has the opportunity to work with Congress to institutionalize changes, altering the landscape – domestically and internationally – in ways that will endure well beyond his presidency.  We and the nation will be paying close attention.

Follow us live @ADL_National during the State of the Union Tuesday night at 9 PM EST for our take on the speech.

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