Rebuffed in D.C., Jewish groups turning to states on social issues

By Matthew E. Berger, JTA

WASHINGTON — With doors closing on them in Washington, social policy advocates in the Jewish community increasingly are looking for open windows.

Faced with a Congress that has been unreceptive to their policy initiatives and a Supreme Court likely to have two new conservative members, Jewish organizations say they’re considering expanding their infrastructures at the state level, with the hope of making policy changes there that they can’t get through Washington.

Advocates in the states are pressing for more resources, saying the future of battles on issues ranging from reproductive rights to life insurance for Israel travelers will be played out in state capitols.

“If and when Roe v. Wade is overturned, the ability of a woman to choose will really go back to the state legislatures,” said Rabbi Fred Guttman of Greensboro, N.C., a member of the Reform movement’s Commission on Social Action. “My feeling is the Jewish community is unprepared for this.”

Much of the debate over Supreme Court nominees John Roberts and Samuel Alito has centered on abortion rights. Roberts joined the high court in September as chief justice; Alito was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday by a party-line vote, 10-8. His nomination will be debated by the full Senate later this week.

If a more conservative court overturns national abortion law, individual states will decide whether to allow the procedure, and under what circumstances. To be ready for that debate, some advocates, like Guttman, are pushing national organizations to focus more on the states.

The Jewish community always has taken a multi-faceted approach to building support for its social policy agenda. Especially in the past few years, with the community’s progressive agenda items unwelcome in a Washington increasingly dominated by conservative values, the groups have had to try different things.

“The model is the Maccabees,” said Michael Lieberman, Washington counsel for the Anti-Defamation League. “They didn’t win because they had superior weaponry or numbers; they won because they knew the terrain, used their moxie and picked their battles.”

Some might say the model also has been President Bush. Unable to get his faith-based initiatives through Congress, he started enacting them through executive orders. That effort has been heavily opposed by many Jewish groups, except for Orthodox ones.

In addition to state policy work, liberal Jewish groups have continued to look for relief from state and federal courts, challenging the Bush administration’s view of the separation of church and state. They have worked with federal agencies to get policies enacted through executive order, including allowing non-profit organizations to compete for earmarked funds from the Department of Homeland Security.

But state legislatures increasingly have become the new arena for social policy battles.

Jewish groups have been pushed to work at the state level because many of their opponents are trying to enact legislation there. Spurred by conservative Christian groups, many state legislatures in recent years have taken up issues such as restrictions on abortion and bans on same-sex marriage.

“State by state, we have a lot of laws in our legislatures that put a lot of obstacles in the way of women,” said Marlene Hammerman, National Council of Jewish Women’s state public affairs chairwoman in Missouri. “We’ve had to fight it at the state level because the federal protections don’t always protect us.”

Now Jewish groups are looking to play offense as well, proposing legislation, with coalition partners, to have states fund stem-cell research and restrict insurance companies from charging premiums or denying coverage to people who travel to Israel.

Expansion of federal hate-crime legislation has stalled in Congress since 1997. But the league and other groups have succeeded in getting state legislatures to enact hate-crime statutes or expand protected categories to include sexual orientation, gender and disability.

“The fact that it hasn’t gotten done at the federal level has certainly been an impetus for it to happen at the state level,” Lieberman said.

Still, the resources devoted to state-level initiatives are small compared to the emphasis on national issues.

“We’ve gotten used to a model where people fly to Washington,” said Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism.

“We’re not structured to know what is happening legislatively in Columbus,” Ohio’s state capital, Pelavin said. “We’re in a better position than we were five years ago, but not as good a position as we need to be.”

A pilot program, Reform Jewish Voice of New York State, is looking to mirror the center’s success in Albany. In March, the group will have a Consultation on Conscience — the same name as the center’s biennial conference — focusing on stem cell research and reproductive rights, among other issues.

“So many issues have devolved to the states,” said Honey Heller, a member of the group’s steering committee. “Everybody loves hands-on social action, but we’re trying to educate our community that it’s not enough; you have to be involved in advocacy.”

The Orthodox Union hired a staffer last year to focus on state initiatives. While the Orthodox Union has been more successful than some other Jewish groups in Washington — because many of its social policy positions are more in line with those of conservative Christians — the organization felt the need to have someone working on the state level as well.

“Many more decisions that can impact our members happen on the state level,” said Nathan Diament, director of the O.U.’s Institute for Public Affairs. The union has focused on education, seeking tax credits for private-school tuition and government transportation services for day schools.

Jewish leaders say they’ll have to use all avenues at their disposal.

“If it doesn’t work in Congress, you can go to the states,” Lieberman said, “and if it doesn’t work there, you have the courts.”