Jewish groups look to issues on legislative agenda

After weeks of fighting over organizational rules in the House and the governor’s appointees in the Senate, Missouri lawmakers are ready to get down to business.

House Speaker Rod Jetton, a Marble Hill Republican, is pitching a plan to end state income taxes on Social Security benefits. Republican Sen. Chris Koster of Harrisonville and Democratic Sen. Tim Green of Spanish Lake have joined in an effort to crack down on illegal immigrants.

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And most lawmakers are looking for a way to rail against a proposed pay raise for elected officials while still finding a way to let the raise take effect.

Several Jewish advocacy groups, meanwhile, are less concerned with pushing a broad agenda than with playing defense against what legislators might do.

Joan Denison, executive director of the St. Louis Chapter of Hadassah, said issues her organization is monitoring include pay equity for women; attempts to undermine last November’s initiative that protects stem cell research; and the need to preclude health insurers and employers from discriminating against people because of genetic predisposition for certain diseases.

Gerry Greiman, chairman of the Church-State Committee of the Jewish Community Relations Council in St. Louis, said the top issue for his organization centers on lawmakers’ renewed push for vouchers or tuition tax credits that would allow tax money to pay for attendance at private, including religious, schools.

Greiman acknowledged that many Orthodox Jews support the use of vouchers. But the JCRC, which represents the broad spectrum of Judaism, voted to oppose vouchers because of concerns that they undermine public schools, he said.

“We’re a big tent,” Greiman said. “We have different perspectives, and room for disagreement on the best way to deal with inadequate urban schools.”

The council is also concerned about proposals that would repeal the stem cell initiative and the governor’s appointments to the state school board based on religious convictions, he said.

In addition, most advocacy groups are girding themselves for a renewed effort by some religious conservatives to put a Christian imprint on public policy.

Greiman said he would not be surprised to see a replay of last year, when legislation was introduced to require the teaching of faith-based doctrine in public school science classes.

The legislation would have required biology teachers to spend as much time teaching faith-based and “alternative” explanations for the origin of life as they spend teaching evolution.

Denison said laws that prevent genetic discrimination by employers and health insurers are growing more important as DNA testing becomes more widespread. Such laws are especially important to the Jewish community, which has a predisposition to breast cancer, Crohn’s disease and certain other ailments, she said.

There are measures that would repeal Amendment 2 and make it a crime to try to grow stem cells in the laboratory by cloning a patient’s body cells, Denison said.

The issue affects not just the search for medical cures, she said, but the separation of church and state.

“Stem cells are becoming a root issue,” Denison said. “It’s invading everything. These are scientific, moral and ethical issues. We should be setting public policy based on facts, not on someone’s religious beliefs.”

Greiman agreed.

“I had hoped that after the issue had a full and fair airing and was settled by the vote we could move on to other things,” Greiman said. “But (opponents) have shown they are willing to push this to the nth degree and will continue to do so.”

To encourage more people to get involved in state issues, several Jewish organizations are hosting a free advocacy training session from 9:30 a.m. to noon on Feb. 4. Known as the Community Speak Out, the training is in preparation for a lobbying trip to the State Capitol on Mar. 6.

The training, which will be held at the Jewish Federation, 12 Millstone Campus Dr., will include sessions on key issues, effective ways of lobbying lawmakers and ways to track legislation as it moves through the General Assembly.

The training will feature presentations from Reps. Rachel Storch, a St. Louis Democrat, and Kathlyn Fares, a Webster Groves Republican, and from lobbyist David Winton, who represents the Jewish Federation of St. Louis.

A session specifically for high school students is scheduled for 11:20 a.m. The session will be led by Sen. Jeff Smith, a St. Louis Democrat, and Rep. Jake Zimmerman, an Olivette Democrat, who will discuss issues surrounding the teaching intelligent design in the classroom.

Reservations, which are required to attend the Community Speak Out, can be made by sending e-mail to [email protected] or by calling the National Council of Jewish Women at 314-993-5181.