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New Bill Introduced to Combat Religious Discrimination

By Kenneth L. Marcus
Director, Initiative to Combat Anti-Semitism and Anti-Israelism in America's Educational Systems

Over the last few years, the Institute for Jewish & Community Research has produced research demonstrating why Congress should prohibit discrimination in schools and colleges. The Institute’s new book on Jewish Identity and Civil Rights and America argues that both congressional action and OCR enforcement are needed to address the resurgent problem of anti-Semitism on U.S. campuses. In other work, the Institute provides a legislative blueprint: The Most Important Right We Think We Have But Don't: Freedom From Religious Discrimination in Education (Nevada Law Journal) and Privileging and Protecting Schoolhouse Religion (Journal of Law and Education)

Last week, after much work by the Institute and its colleagues at the Zionist Organization of America, bills were introduced into both houses of Congress which would implement the Institute’s legislative recommendation. The congressional sponsors, Senator Arlen Specter and Congressman Brad Sherman, share the Institute’s view that Congress should address religious discrimination in the schools just like it does with racial and ethnic discrimination: through the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR), which the author formerly headed, and which is well-equipped to handle such cases.

The Quad’s readers are now well acquainted with the problems which Jewish students face on many campuses. This month, for example, Commentary magazine is publishing the author’s revelations of the severity of the problems at the University of California at Irvine and of OCR’s unwillingness to address them properly. The Institute has also described the systemic character of campus anti-Semitism in Gary Tobin and Aryeh Weinberg’s important volume on The Uncivil University. Specter and Sherman appropriately add other examples of discrimination facing students of other religious backgrounds, such as Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims.

While it would be preferable for the Obama administration’s OCR to take the lead on this issue, and to provide firm guidance demonstrating its commitment to prosecute anti-Semitic harassment on federally funded campuses, it has so far not done so, and some of its public statements have been troubling. Dozens of members of Congress have recently urged the Education Department to do the right thing. In the meantime, however, Senator Specter and Representative Sherman should be commended for their leadership. Senator Specter will not be in Congress much longer, as he recently lost his primary, but he has at least gotten the ball rolling on the Senate side. Brad Sherman, who has long been an outspoken supporter of Jewish college students, is an appropriate spokesman since his district is in Southern California. There is a long way to go on this issue, but things are clearly now moving.

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