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March 1, 2016 2

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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September 11, 2015 1

Marching for Fairness – the NAACP Journey for Justice

After par­tic­i­pat­ing in the his­toric vot­ing rights march from Selma to Mont­gomery on March 21, 1965, Rabbi Abram­son Joshua Hes­chel famously said:

“For many of us the march from Selma to Mont­gomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips and walk­ing is not kneel­ing. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even with­out words, our march was wor­ship. I felt my legs were praying.”

Sandmel

ADL Direc­tor of Inter­faith Affairs Rabbi David Sand­mel and NAACP Pres­i­dent and CEO Cor­nell Brooks on the road to Wash­ing­ton DC as part of the Jour­ney for Justice.

 

That march played a sig­nif­i­cant role in prompt­ing Con­gress to enact the land­mark Vot­ing Rights Act of 1965 (VRA) – per­haps the most impor­tant and effec­tive civil rights leg­is­la­tion ever passed.   In the half cen­tury since then, the VRA has secured and safe­guarded the right to vote for mil­lions of Amer­i­cans. Its suc­cess in elim­i­nat­ing dis­crim­i­na­tory bar­ri­ers to full civic par­tic­i­pa­tion and in advanc­ing equal polit­i­cal par­tic­i­pa­tion at all lev­els of gov­ern­ment is undeniable.

Some­times legs pray.

And some­times legs carry you to Wash­ing­ton DC to demand progress toward jus­tice and fair treat­ment for all.

Today, fifty years after the pas­sage of the VRA, and two years after a deeply trou­bling Supreme Court deci­sion that essen­tially gut­ted the heart of the leg­is­la­tion — marchers are on their way to Wash­ing­ton to demand vot­ing rights pro­tec­tions again.  The NAACP has orga­nized America’s Jour­ney for Jus­tice, which started in Selma on August 1.  The Anti-Defamation League is one of the sup­port­ing orga­ni­za­tions for the 1000-mile march, as we had sup­ported the orig­i­nal Selma to Mont­gomery march.  Then-ADL National Direc­tor Ben Epstein wrote,

“We walked together—more than 3,000 Amer­i­cans: Negroes and whites, min­is­ters, rab­bis, Catholic nuns, stu­dents, rep­re­sen­ta­tives of orga­ni­za­tions, those who belonged to no group other than the human race—all in peace­ful demon­stra­tion against blind vio­lence, in ‘gigan­tic wit­ness’ to the con­sti­tu­tion­ally guar­an­teed right of all cit­i­zens to reg­is­ter and vote.”

Jour­ney to Jus­tice cul­mi­nates in an Advo­cacy Day on the Cap­i­tal Hill on Sep­tem­ber 16.  Marchers and their sup­port­ers will have dozens of meet­ings with Mem­bers of the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives and the Sen­ate.  The prin­ci­pal focal point for the lob­by­ing will be the need to address the dev­as­tat­ing impact of Shelby County v. Holder, a 2013 Supreme Court deci­sion which gut­ted a key pro­vi­sion of the VRA, dra­mat­i­cally lim­it­ing its effec­tive­ness and reach.

Last Novem­ber – the first major elec­tion since Shelby County – there were new restric­tions on vot­ing in 15 states, endan­ger­ing vot­ing rights for hun­dreds of thou­sands of Amer­i­cans. From voter ID laws that threaten to dis­en­fran­chise African Amer­i­cans, Lati­nos, stu­dents and elderly vot­ers, to cuts to early vot­ing and oner­ous require­ments for voter reg­is­tra­tion, the right to vote is in peril.

The proper response to the Shelby County deci­sion is the bipar­ti­san Vot­ing Rights Advance­ment Act of 2015 (S. 1659/H.R. 2867).  The VRAA reasserts appro­pri­ate fed­eral over­sight over efforts to change state and local vot­ing laws and pro­vides addi­tional safe­guards for voting.

Since, 1965 reaf­firm­ing the nation’s com­mit­ment to full vot­ing rights for all has never been con­tro­ver­sial.  Each time the VRA came up for reau­tho­riza­tion it has received over­whelm­ing, bipar­ti­san Con­gres­sional sup­port.  The last time Con­gress extended the VRA, in 2006, it did so after an exhaus­tive hear­ings on vot­ing dis­crim­i­na­tion and the impact of the VRA – result­ing in thou­sands of pages of doc­u­men­ta­tion.  The leg­is­la­tion passed over­whelm­ingly: 390 to 33 in the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives and 98–0 in the Senate.

As we have com­mem­o­rated the 50th anniver­sary of the Vot­ing Rights Act (VRA) this sum­mer, we have been reminded just how far we have come – how impact­ful the VRA has been in ensur­ing the rights of all Amer­i­cans to have their say in our democ­racy.   Jour­ney for Jus­tice marchers and their sup­port­ers are demon­strat­ing that Con­gress must do more than merely com­mem­o­rate anniver­saries of his­toric civil rights vic­to­ries.  They must act.  Now is the time for Con­gress to act to restore the pro­tec­tions of the VRA and secure the right to vote for all Americans.

 

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August 5, 2015 0

On the 50th Anniversary of Voting Rights Act, Congress Must Legislate

By Jonathan Green­blatt
National Direc­tor of the Anti-Defamation League

This arti­cle orig­i­nally appeared on The Huff­in­g­ton Post Blog

Fifty years ago, as Pres­i­dent Lyn­don B. John­son signed into law the Vot­ing Rights Act, he said, “Today is a tri­umph for free­dom as huge as any vic­tory that has ever been won on any battlefield.”

The anal­ogy was apt. Peo­ple had indeed given their blood – and in some cases even their lives – fight­ing for the right to vote.

It was also accu­rate. The Vot­ing Rights Act (VRA) secured and safe­guarded the right to vote for mil­lions of Amer­i­cans, mak­ing it among the most impor­tant mile­stones of the civil rights move­ment and per­haps its most effec­tive leg­isla­tive achievement.

For decades before the enact­ment of the VRA, states had used laws – includ­ing lit­er­acy tests, grand­fa­ther clauses, and poll taxes­ – to pre­vent African Amer­i­cans from vot­ing. Although, when chal­lenged, the courts almost always struck down the laws as uncon­sti­tu­tional, it some­times took years for the cases to make their way through the court sys­tem.  By the time the courts struck down one law, leg­is­la­tors had passed another dis­crim­i­na­tory law to take its place.

The VRA changed the equa­tion.  By not only out­law­ing dis­crim­i­na­tion in vot­ing around the coun­try, but also requir­ing the his­tor­i­cally worst offend­ers – both states and local juris­dic­tions – to “pre­clear” their pro­posed changes to vot­ing prac­tices with the fed­eral gov­ern­ment before going into place, the VRA opened the door for those pre­vi­ously silenced by dis­crim­i­na­tion to make their voices heard.

And the VRA’s suc­cess was clear almost imme­di­ately. After 1965, African Amer­i­can voter reg­is­tra­tion rates sky­rock­eted. The num­ber of African Amer­i­cans elected to pub­lic office increased five­fold within five years of the VRA’s pas­sage. By the early 2000s, there were more than 9,000 African Amer­i­can elected offi­cials in the United States – includ­ing the first African Amer­i­can president—and most were from areas required to pre­clear their laws with the fed­eral government.

In 2013, how­ever, in a case called Shelby County v. Holder, a deeply divided U.S. Supreme Court struck down a crit­i­cal part of the VRA, essen­tially gut­ting the heart of the leg­is­la­tion. Although the court affirmed that the idea of pre­clear­ance was con­sti­tu­tional, it struck down the for­mula used to deter­mine which states and local­i­ties would have to pre­clear their laws, effec­tively end­ing the prac­tice of preclearance.

In a pow­er­ful dis­sent, Jus­tice Ruth Bader Gins­burg wrote, “Throw­ing out pre­clear­ance when it has worked and is con­tin­u­ing to work to stop dis­crim­i­na­tory changes is like throw­ing away an umbrella in a rain­storm because you’re not get­ting wet.”

As Jus­tice Gins­burg and the other dis­senters had fore­seen, the storms rolled in imme­di­ately. Within hours of the Supreme Court’s deci­sion, Texas, North Car­olina, and other states put into effect dis­crim­i­na­tory vot­ing laws that had been pre­vi­ously blocked by fed­eral courts review­ing the poli­cies as part of the pre­clear­ance procedure.

Texas, for exam­ple, imme­di­ately revived a redis­trict­ing plan that a fed­eral court had refused to pre­clear before Shelby County, find­ing “more evi­dence of dis­crim­i­na­tory intent than we have space or need to address here,” and put into effect a voter ID law that another fed­eral court had blocked, con­clud­ing that “sim­ply put, many His­pan­ics and African Amer­i­cans who voted in the last elec­tions will, because of the bur­dens imposed by SB 14, likely be unable to vote.”

Since then, states and local­i­ties around the county have passed dozens of laws that threaten to dis­en­fran­chise hun­dreds of thou­sands of vot­ers, dis­pro­por­tion­ately impact­ing com­mu­ni­ties of color, the elderly, peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties, stu­dents, and poor people.

When the Supreme Court struck down the for­mula used to deter­mine which states would have to pre­clear their laws, it expressly left open the door for Con­gress to cre­ate a new formula.

Recently, Con­gress has answered that call. A new bill has been intro­duced in both the House and the Sen­ate – the Vot­ing Rights Advance­ment Act – which would revive the cru­cial vot­ing rights pro­tec­tions of the VRA by cre­at­ing a new for­mula for pre­clear­ance, putting in place addi­tional safe­guards for vot­ing, and once more help­ing to ensure that all Amer­i­cans can have their say in our democracy.

In 2006, the last year in which Con­gress voted on reau­tho­riza­tion of the VRA, sup­port for con­tin­u­ing the law’s crit­i­cal safe­guards was bipar­ti­san and nearly unan­i­mous. The vote was 390 to 33 in the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives (includ­ing over 150 cur­rent Rep­re­sen­ta­tives) and 98 to 0 in the Sen­ate (includ­ing over 30 cur­rent Senators).

That same bipar­ti­san sup­port for the VRA is more impor­tant today than ever before. In this moment when our coun­try seems polar­ized on so many issues and ten­sions are uncom­fort­ably high, an endorse­ment from both sides of the aisle for the VRA would be a pow­er­ful sign of demo­c­ra­tic renewal and national civil­ity at a time when such behav­iors are in short supply.

As we gear up for the 2016 elec­tion – the first pres­i­den­tial elec­tion since the Supreme Court crip­pled the VRA’s pro­tec­tions – we need, as Pres­i­dent John­son said, a new tri­umph for free­dom to match any won on a battlefield.

On the 50th anniver­sary of the Vot­ing Rights Act, it is time to leg­is­late, not just commemorate.

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