Session generally positive for Jewish community

JEFFERSON CITY — With the rhetoric of the Religious Right significantly muted by last year’s election, the Missouri legislature’s 2007 session was largely positive for the St. Louis Jewish community.

Community leaders cited new state funding for retirement initiatives and for a demonstration project on preventing child abuse. The proposed repeal of Amendment 2, which protects stem cell research in Missouri, got shot down in a House committee. And most of the issues that raise concerns about separation of church and state never gained traction.

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“I think the whole faith-driven agenda became too much for the average voter,” said Karen Aroesty, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League for Missouri and Southern Illinois.

Aroesty pointed to the demise of one proposal to give religious doctrine a higher profile in college classrooms and another to teach intelligent design as an alternative to evolution in high school biology classes.

“We thought intelligent design would be back with a vengeance,” Aroesty said. “But it didn’t happen.”

Gerry Greiman, chairman of the Church-State Committee of the Jewish Community Relations Council in St. Louis, was a bit less sanguine, calling the outcome of the legislative session something of a mixed bag.

He noted that most of the victories came in stopping bad legislation rather than approving positive changes. And both Greiman and Aroesty criticized passage of a bill that requires the state to assign employees in each region of Missouri to help faith-based organizations develop and provide social programs.

Greiman said such a requirement has the potential to violate the separation between church and state because it involves the government going out of its way to funnel money to religious-based organizations. And it creates the possibility that participants in the programs can be subjected to proselytizing and to discrimination if they object, he said.

“It’s one thing not to disqualify religious organizations,” Greiman said. “But to establish a separate program where the government is devoting resources to religious organizations, I can’t see that as doing anything other than buttressing religion.”

Aroesty said she thought lawmakers were seduced by the promise that the program would not cost anything because existing staff members would act as liaisons to faith communities. Opponents of the legislation were in an awkward position, she said.

“How can you complain about such programs being offered by anyone in the post-Katrina era when the federal government can’t seem to get any services delivered?” she said.

Passage of a measure to make English the official language of all government proceedings was simply unnecessary, Greiman said. The proposal, which must be approved by voters, is a form of discrimination and shows a general intolerance toward minority groups, he said.

But Greiman said he was delighted that stem cell research will continue to be protected in Missouri. And he joined Aroesty in praising the failure of the so-called “intellectual diversity” measure, which would have protected religious viewpoints in college classes.

He said he was glad to see the failure of measures designed to allow pharmacists to refuse to fill prescriptions for birth control or other medication if they conflict with their personal values. While many in the Orthodox community support such measures as an accommodation of religious differences, the broader Jewish community has rejected such measures as imposing a religious value on all of society, Greiman said.

“It really makes life unworkable if people go into a service profession, then decide whether they will serve or not,” Greiman said. “If that’s the case, they need to find another line of work.”

Greiman also lauded the dramatic defeat of Republican Gov. Matt Blunt’s proposal to use tax credits to fund private school education for low- and moderate-income students in St. Louis and Kansas City. The proposal was defeated 62-96 by the Republican-controlled House, despite Blunt personally lobbying for the bill in the House chamber.

Greiman noted that the Orthodox community generally supports the use of tax subsidies for private school tuition as a way of dealing with failing urban schools. But the broader Jewish community does not.

David Winton, who lobbies for the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, cited three major accomplishments in the state budget. The first was a $150,000 appropriation for the Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities, a project of the Jewish Community Center.

The project, which began receiving federal funding three years ago, helps elderly people within its neighborhoods in Creve Coeur to remain in their homes through a plan of coordinated care designed by residents themselves. This is the first year the project has moved from a demonstration project to receiving state funding.

As the governor’s staff begins reviewing the budget to veto individual spending items, Winton said he was working with the governor’s office to ensure that they know the importance of the funding.

“The Jewish community has been a partner with the state for years in Medicaid, in early child care programs and care for the elderly,” Winton said. “But this is the first time they innovated a project, demonstrated its effectiveness and went to the state as a partner. We want to be part of the solution of dealing with the needs of the elderly and the boomers as they age. This is the type of solution that’s needed because the projected cost to care for the elderly is daunting. We can’t do it through nursing homes.”

The legislature also authorized spending $300,000 on a demonstration program to prevent child abuse. The program, proposed by Jewish Family and Children Service, attempts to fill a huge gap in social services, Winton said.

Nearly all state funds are spent on mitigating the effects of child abuse through medical services and foster care, he said. This program is designed to reduce the incidence of child abuse by building upon a national program that Jewish Family and Children Service has operated in schools for the last five years, he said.

“There will be open bids for the contract, but the Jewish community felt that, whoever operates the program, it was important for the state to invest in new programs to stop the big drain on the state budget,” Winton said. “The state is so busy dealing with the problems, that it has no resources to deal with the big picture. Non-profits like the Jewish Community Center can see ways to mitigate these problems.”

Winton said advocates also held off an effort by the Economic Development Department to combine $26 million in socially oriented tax credits into one big program. Such a move would have allowed bureaucrats, rather than lawmakers, to determine which programs received funding.

The Jewish Federations have used such tax credits, including the Neighborhood Assistance Program, youth opportunity credits and others, to leverage private donations. Such credits, for example, were used to upgrade the sewer system at Camp Sabra, a retreat at Lake of the Ozarks, Winton said.

“That’s the kind of program that these tax credits were for,” Winton said. “No one wants to give money to put their name on a sewer system. But without those donations, we wouldn’t have the camp.”

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