Trenton topics: Israel@60, religious protection bill

Trenton topics: Israel@60, religious protection bill

Shortly after Gov. Jon Corzine signed a new religious protection bill into law, the New Jersey State Association of Jewish Federations announced his nomination to the National Committee for Israel’s 60th Anniversary, which is overseen by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

"Gov. Corzine is deeply honored to be nominated as a member of the 60th anniversary committee," said Gloria Montealegre, the governor’s spokeswoman. "His willingness to serve in this capacity certainly demonstrates his longstanding commitment to New Jersey’s Jewish community and he would be pleased to help celebrate their vibrant contributions."

In its nominating letter to the President’s Conference, the state association cited Corzine’s recent signing of legislation to divest New Jersey pension funds from Iran and Iranian-linked companies, as well as his support for the New Jersey-Israel Commission.

The committee’s goal is to commemorate six decades of the U.S.-Israel friendship, said Chloe Markowitz, National Committee for Israel at 60 coordinator at the Conference of Presidents.

"It will serve as a symbol for the community both here and abroad in Israel to show that elected officials as well as prominent personalities are standing side by side with Israel as it celebrates its independence," she said.

The conference has yet to set a specific agenda for the committee but it will focus on Israel’s 60th anniversary and highlight its accomplishments as the only stable democracy in the region, said Jacob Toporek, executive director of the New Jersey State Association of Jewish Federations.

Although the position is honorary, being named to it highlights each committee member’s commitment to Israel, he continued.

"[I]t speaks beyond an honorary position because of the people involved," he said. Former Presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush are co-chairs of the committee, while former Vice Presidents Al Gore, Dan Quayle, and Walter Mondale have also signed on.

"It is a strong statement about the U.S.-Israel relationship and the fact that there is a solid support for Israel and for what it has accomplished in a short 60 years," Toporek said.

The Presidents Conference has asked federations across the country to nominate elected officials to the committee. In addition to Corzine, the state’s 1′ Jewish federations have nominated Sens. Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez. Each federation in the state will nominate U.S. representatives from its catchment area to include all of New Jersey’s congressmen on the committee. UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey is preparing to nominate Reps. Scott Garret and Steve Rothman.

"It’s a milestone for Israel and there is an outpouring of congratulations," said Howard Charish, executive vice president of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey. "We are happy to select our two congressmen to serve on this committee. They have always been and continue to be strong supporters of Israel."

The bill Corzine signed on Sunday requires employers to accommodate any employee with scheduling conflicts due to religious observance. The bill is part of a package designed by Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-36) and introduced into the Senate by Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-37). Corzine signed the first two bills in the package in December.

"We need to ensure that religious discrimination in the workplace will not be allowed," Schaer said upon Sunday’s signing. "People have a right to practice their religious beliefs without the fear of losing their livelihood or compromising their career advancement. America is built on diversity and tolerance, and this bill underscores that fundamental right in the workplace."

For Linda and Stanley Rutta of Englewood, the law is a blessing. Stanley Rutta works for a Netherlands-based computer company that services the retail industry. In December he received a memo about vacation time in ‘008. The company defined the start of the retail season in October and accordingly no vacation requests would be approved between Oct. 15 and Dec. 14. Sukkot begins on Oct. 14 and is followed by Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah.

Three vacation days would be offered to employees before Oct. 15 or after Dec. 14, according to the memo, and the management recently told employees that all vacation days must be taken by Aug. 31, according to Linda Rutta.

"This [law] is a relief to us so that we no longer have to feel that every time a memo comes out we have to battle to take off Jewish holidays," Linda Rutta said Tuesday. "It’s been a real hassle. The last three years have just been impossible because of retail season."

The law expands the state’s Law Against Discrimination to protect employees from losing out on promotions, retaining employment, or being transferred because of religious obligations. Employers who discriminate against their workers because of religious observance now face penalties up to $50,000.

The state did not previously have legislation to protect religiously observant employees, which often caused confusion among employers and hardships among employees.

"The governor signed this bill because it clearly lays out the obligations of employers and the rights of employees in the area of religious accommodation," said Montealegre. "Until now these issues had been addressed through court opinions, and this bill makes it easier for everyone to know what the rules are and to follow them."

The two bills signed in December began the process of protecting religious state residents from discrimination in various areas.

One allows patients admitted to hospitals on religious holidays to bypass paperwork until the end of the holiday, while the other requires state licensing bodies to accommodate people with religious scheduling conflicts.

A fourth bill still under consideration in the state Senate would require New Jersey colleges and universities to accommodate students whose religious obligations prevent participation in testing that falls out on holidays. Schaer was hopeful that this bill would pass within the first two quarters of this year.

The package includes two other bills that would affect the state’s health-care governance. One ensures nursing home residents the right to receive food in line with their religious dietary laws. The second bill ensures that doctors make their medical decisions — end of life issues, for example — in accordance with a patient’s religious beliefs.

Schaer is preparing a new package of religious accommodation bills for the Assembly but said he was not ready to disclose its content.

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