Jewish activists come to Richmond for advocacy day


With an eye on Virginia’s government, a determined group of people representing Northern Virginia synagogues and Jewish organizations is striving to keep creationism and organized prayer out of the state’s school system.

While voters may not be aware, this and other controversial topics are currently being debated in the state legislature. But these activists, led by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, are scrutinizing the little-known state matters through a Jewish viewpoint.

“We are incredibly powerful, impactful and important,” said Debbie Linick, JCRC director for DC and Northern Virginia.

Wednesday, after this week’s Washington Jewish Week went to press, 80 activists were slated to spend the day in Richmond during Virginia Jewish Advocacy Day 2014. While only visiting Richmond for five hours, they were expected to meet face-to-face with the new governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general, as well as numerous legislators.

The group has come out strongly against House Bill 207, which on the surface appears designed only to encourage students to explore scientific questions. But, according to the JCRC, although creationism and evolution are not mentioned in the bill, “patrons have been quite clear about the intent to consider global warming and evolution ‘scientific controversies.’ ”

If enacted into law, evolution could be taught in schools only “as a controversial subject,” explained Elise Helgesen Aguilar, federal legislative counsel with Americans United for Separation of Church & State. This bill would “undermine evolution as a science,” she said, adding that the measure’s backers “are still promoting religion in the classroom. They have no secular purpose.”

Current law states that teaching religion as science is illegal, Aguilar said recently while addressing a roomful of Jewish activists as they prepared for Virginia Jewish Advocacy Day.

The bill was debated by the House Subcommittee on Elementary and Secondary Education last month. Rather than voting, the subcommittee on Jan. 30 referred the bill to the Committee for Courts of Justice.

The JCRC, which spoke out against the measure, is pleased with the bill’s placement in a legal committee rather than an education-based one, and believes chances of the bill’s adoption are less likely now.

Another bill being discussed by state legislators would allow students to express their personal religious views during various school events, including graduation or morning announcements.

Students already are allowed to meet as a religious group, and voluntary prayer is permitted as long as it is not coerced, Linick explained. But this proposed bill as viewed by the JCRC, “would actually trample on students’ religious freedom rights, particularly religious minorities’ right to freedom from religious coercion. Certain of these provisions would create a backdoor for reinstating organized school prayer.”

Schools are not the only thing on the minds of these activists. They also are hoping Virginia will expand its Medicaid program to allow more participants. The federal government currently pays half of Virginia’s Medicaid program and the state pays the rest.

Under a new program, the federal government will pay 100 percent of the cost for the additional participants until 2016, and then will pay 90 percent after that.

The expansion originally was part of the Affordable Care Act, but the U.S. Supreme Court removed it. Due to the partisanship concerning President Obama’s federal health care program and a fear by some politicians that the federal government won’t foot the entire bill, Medicaid expansion has become a battle in many states, according to Melissa Bondi, director of The Virginia Non-Profit Roundtable.

The program would help the poor obtain insurance and add 30,000 health care jobs to Virginia, said Bondi, who recently spoke to about 40 Jewish activists on the need to support Medicaid expansion.

“Medicaid expansion is considered a bellwether in this country and lots of eyes are on Richmond,” she noted.

This group of Jewish activists has taken stands on many more issues, including one that will provide an additional $100,000 in funding for the Virginia Israel Advisory Board. Still, it only advocates for or against a small fraction of the bills considered by the legislature each year. During 2014, the Virginia legislature will be in session for 60 days, but during that time will consider roughly 3,000 bills.

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