Groups join to protect rights

BY KIT WAGAR, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

As legislation with a fundamentalist Christian bent flooded the Missouri legislature this year, Jewish women in St. Louis took notice.

From endorsing Bible courses in school to encouraging prayer in public places to restrictions on stem cell research, proposals that threatened the separation of government and religion seemed to gain momentum every week.

The final straw was a resolution asserting that the United States was founded as a “Christian nation” and calling on elected officials to “protect the majority’s right to express their religious beliefs.”

While even many Christian groups expressed outrage, members of Hadassah, the National Council of Jewish Women and the Jewish Community Relations Council decided more direct action was needed.

The three groups joined together to sponsor a lobbying day in Jefferson City. The goal: to make a strong statement on behalf of a united Jewish community about the need to keep religion separate from government and to protect research on early stem cells.

“If we don’t respond, and this kind of legislation keeps coming along, then we have no one to blame but ourselves for not taking the time to speak directly to our lawmakers,” said Joan Denison, executive director of Hadassah’s St. Louis Chapter. “Personal rights and freedoms are not taken in one fell swoop. They are eroded gradually.”

Organizers said they hope to bring up to 150 people to the Capitol for the event, which is scheduled for May 2. Participants will be encouraged to speak directly to their representatives and senators.

Organizers said the event’s late date — coming only 10 days before the end of the legislative session — did not deter them. Rather, it emphasizes that this year’s effort is part of a longer-term strategy.

“The purpose is not to lobby legislators about a particular bill, but about these types of bills, and to let them know they are not acceptable to the Jewish community,” Denison said.

Batya Abramson-Goldstein, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, said the Jewish community has a stronger voice when it pools its advocacy efforts.

“We hope to have impact on the direction that legislation takes this session and next year,” Abramson-Goldstein said. “This is a long-term effort. We’re in it for the long run … As responsible citizens of Missouri, we think we have an obligation to share our positions with our legislators.”

Nancy Weigley, program director for the St. Louis section of the National Council of Jewish Women, said lobby day is an attempt to remain vigilant against efforts by some lawmakers to chip away at personal freedoms. While this year’s cascade of legislation emphasizing conservative Christian values seemed to be a dramatic increase, those issues have been bubbling up for several years, she said.

Organizers said they plan to emphasize to lawmakers that in a modern society all voices should be heard and respected. Lawmakers, Denison said, should not be trying to appease or uphold a particular faith.

Their tendency to do that affects a wide range of issues, including stem cell research, she said.

Hadassah has been one of the leading organizations advocating on behalf of research on early stem cells, which have the ability to develop into all the tissues of the body. Scientists hope to learn how to turn the stem cells into brain cells to treat Parkinson’s disease, pancreatic cells to treat diabetes and nerve cells to treat spinal injuries.

But some Missouri lawmakers have tried to ban such research. They argue that harvesting stem cells from fertilized human eggs or from cells created in a lab dish amounts to killing a person.

With that argument, Denison said, those lawmakers are adopting a right-wing Christian perspective on when life begins rather than considering the wide range of beliefs among their constituents.

Jewish tradition holds that human life does not being until 40 days after conception. Therefore, lawmakers who claim that a fertilized egg cell has the same value as a fully developed person are imposing their religious dogma on government policy, Denison said.

Besides stem cell research and keeping religion and government separate, participants also will be encouraged to tell legislators the Jewish community’s other concerns. Abramson-Goldstein said those range from the effect of last year’s dramatic cuts in the Medicaid program to education issues such as attempts by legislators to dictate the content of science classes and the need for adequate funding of public schools.

Organizers will offer lobby-day participants background papers on issues and training on how to advocate their positions. The training sessions will be held on the bus ride from St. Louis to Jefferson City.

A key part of the training, Weigley said, is letting participants know that speaking up makes a difference.

“When legislators get three or four letters, that’s a lot on one issue,” Weigley said. “People need to realize that their voice does count.”

Denison said she hoped that lawmakers will come away with a new appreciation for the rights and viewpoints of others.

“At some point, in some way, your group will be the minority view,” Denison said. “If you take rights from one group, you have to be prepared to lose your own.”

For more information or to sign up to participate in the lobby day at the Capitol, call the National Council of Jewish Women at 314-993-5181. Participants also can register on the NCJW’s web site by going to www.ncjwstl.org.

Kit Wagar is the statehouse correspondent for the Kansas City Star. He can be reached at 816-234-4440 or by sending e-mail to [email protected]

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