Jews make their voices heard in Richmond
Washington Jewish Week
A bill making its way through the Virginia General Assembly could place broad restrictions on the application of foreign laws in Virginia courts, which might possibly limit the legality of religious laws in Virginia courts.
HB 825, which has a broad definition of what constitutes foreign law and no exemptions for particular religious matters, was a top priority item for Northern Virginia Jewish advocates who traveled to Richmond with the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington (JCRC) for Jewish Social Advocacy Day on Wednesday of last week.
More than 50 members of the Northern Virginia Jewish community joined several other Jewish community advocates throughout the state to lobby on various issues being debated in the General Assembly ranging from First Amendment rights to financial support for the Virginia Israel Advisory Board (VIAB).
On HB 825, advocates argued that the broad interpretation of the legislation, which already passed the Virginia House Courts of Justice Committee last Friday by a vote of 10-6, could impact the Virginia Jewish community on issues related to religious arbitration.
"There certainly could be a problem from creating an overly broad definition of foreign laws that would impact the Jewish community and a wide range of other faith groups," Debra Linick, the JCRC's director for Northern Virginia and Washington, D.C.
Several states, including Tennessee and Oklahoma, have already passed legislation similar to this bill as a way to prevent the application of Shariah law in U.S. courts.
According to Linick, national Jewish agencies like the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee, have opposed these types of bills and that it is important to stop the momentum of these particular bills that "are solutions in search of a problem."
AJC and ADL both sent letters to members of the general assembly expressing opposition to the legislation.
"We don't know if foreign law includes religious law," said Marc Stern, associate general counsel for AJC. "If this bill applies to religious law, it would appear to imply that even voluntary agreements to submit a dispute to arbitration could not be decided under religious law."
In addition to HB 825, advocates focused their lobbying efforts on opposing legislation that would infringe on the separation of church and state.
One bill - HJ 94 - would call on Congress to amend the Constitution to allow for voluntary school prayer and public prayer.
Linick pointed out that each year the JCRC sees bills in the Virginia legislature that "threaten the separation of church and state," an issue of significant importance to the Jewish community.
"Each year we play a leading role on a couple of issues where the Jewish community has expertise and a great amount of interest," Linick said. "We have a primary role to play in pointing out issues that infringe upon First Amendment protections."
The reception of the advocates by members of the General Assembly appeared positive, with numerous meetings occurring throughout the afternoon.
First-time advocates like Jerry Dinkin of Chantilly noted that the meetings with legislators were "very productive."
Linick emphasized that the benefit of having newer activists like Dinkin is that they "become seasoned veterans and they're creating relationships and maintaining relationships with those elected officials and it definitely has an impact."
The delegation had the opportunity to hear Republican Gov. Robert McDonnell discuss his recent trip to Israel and the "immense privilege" he had to speak with Israeli President Shimon Peres for more than an hour.
In response to a question about the Virginia Israel Advisory Board, McDonnell reiterated his support for additional funding and urged community advocates to highlight that issue in their meetings with legislators.
Advocates urged legislators to support two budget amendments that would increase funding for VIAB from $127,465 to $175,361 in the coming fiscal year, which would provide VIAB with the necessary tools to carry out its mission.
VIAB was responsible for encouraging the opening of the Sabra food processing plant in Chesterfield, which added 105 new jobs for Virginians in 2011.
Speaking of the importance of getting the additional VIAB funding, Cookie Hymer Blitz, vice president of the JCRC, emphasized the positive results of the entity, which she said "speaks to the good relations of Israel and the Commonwealth."
Before heading to their meetings with the legislators, the activists were afforded a victory when Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli announced during his lunch address that his office recommended pulling HB 1207, which prohibited public and private universities from penalizing students who asserted a conscientious objection to do coursework based on religious beliefs.
HB1207 was one of the main pieces of legislation on the Jewish community's agenda for social advocacy day.
"It's really fantastic to see when something happens on advocacy day that is such a significant victory because we're down there," Linick said.