Civil Liberties The National Newsletter of the ACLU #380, Spring 1994 (c) 1994 American Ci

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Civil Liberties The National Newsletter of the ACLU #380, Spring 1994 (c) 1994 American Civil Liberties Union IN THE CONGRESS: Not the Worst, But Hardly the Best, Of Times by Laura Murphy Lee A disturbing array of civil liberties assaults has marked the 103rd Congress's second session. The ACLU Washington Office succeeded in reducing the potential harm of these attacks. However, more threats loom before adjournment, which is scheduled for late July to allow all of the House and one third of the Senate to stand for reelection. Among the pressures bearing upon it, Congress has largely focused on how to respond to public concern about violent crime. Yet instead of honestly debating the issues, our representatives, joined in their dereliction by the Executive, have often exploited public exasperation by playing fast and loose with constitutional rights. Thus, the prescription offered for youth violence is prayer in school, plus censorship of "gangsta rap" and television programming; for repeat felons and gun users, more mandatory minimum sentences -- despite evidence that they are ineffective and lead to gross miscarriages of justice; for juvenile crime, treating 13-year-olds as adults in the federal criminal justice system, and the designation of more than 50 crimes as federal capital offenses. Government is apparently in denial about the real breeding grounds of antisocial behavior -- substandard education, poverty, drug and alcohol abuse, unemployment, inadequate housing and wideranging discrimination. Poverty? The Administration proposes to limit aid to dependent children and phase out family assistance after two years. Discrimination? The proposed health care reforms would deny health services to immigrants, fomenting bias against "foreign-looking" people. To control crime in public housing, it has been suggested that tenants agree to warrantless searches of their homes when they sign the dotted line in their apartment leases. To corral drug abuse, we have new prison construction and meager funds for treatment programs. To remedy discrimination based on sexual orientation, we get "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." School Prayer Congressional softness on the notion that school prayer might curb youth violence has inspired much troublemaking at the Constitution's expense. Seizing the opportunity presented by this muddleheadedness, the ever vigilant Jesse Helms (R-NC) slipped through the back door of an education bill an amendment that would have withdrawn federal funding from any public school district that prohibited "constitutionally protected prayer." Ever since the Fifth Circuit decided not to strike down student- initiated graduation prayer -- the Jones vs. Clear Creek ruling, which applies only to Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi -- the religious right has been seeking to extend that decision's reach. Through ACLU efforts, the Helms amendment was beaten back in committee. However, Helms-type language will reappear later this year as more education bills reach the House and Senate floors. Health Care Reform Despite the high priority given health care reform by the President, a consensus on that reform's scope and nature has yet to emerge. The ACLU's national offices jointly addressed the civil liberties issues implicated by health care reform in Toward a New Health Care System, the Civil Liberties Issues, a report that has been well received as a lobbying and organizing tool. We are working to ensure that any reform package includes adequate privacy protections for medical records. And teamed with women's groups, we are repelling assaults on reproductive rights that have begun to arise as health care bills move through Congress. The fact that all women would be affected by any curtailment of these rights has created a volatile legislative battle with farreaching implications. Equally urgent are our efforts to repeal the Hyde amendment, which bars abortion funding for poor women. In addition, we are working to ensure coverage for prisoners and undocumented workers in health care proposals, a task made difficult by the prevalent fear-of-crime, anti- immigrant climate. The Crime Bill Once again, Congress has taken the low road on crime. At this writing, House and Senate conferees are trying to forge a single bill that includes over 50 new capital crimes -- among them: non-homicidal offenses like drug trafficking; the heralded "Three Strikes, You're Out" idea; more than 22 mandatory minimum sentences; prosecution of juveniles as adults; criminalized gang membership -- "gang" being defined so broadly that a high school football team or even Congress might qualify, and such shocking anti-immigrant proposals as allowing secret evidence at deportation proceedings. Refusing to accept as a done deal that this nightmare will reach the Oval Office for signing, the ACLU has mobilized more than 25 national organizations to promote elimination, in committee, of the legislation's worst features and produced documents outlining its assaults on due process, Eighth Amendment protections, equal protection and First Amendment rights. Reproductive Rights As we go to press, the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, which makes it a federal crime to blockade the facilities of abortion providers, has passed, Congress having rejected groundless assertions that the Act infringed upon the First Amendment rights of anti-abortion protesters. Instead of targeting speech, which would hinder the exercise of a constitutional right, the Act targets obstructive conduct. The ACLU's illumination of the distinction between restrictions on speech and constitutionally permissible restrictions on obstructive conduct helped ease the legislation's way. For information about activities in Congress in the coming months, contact us at (202) 544-1681. Fact sheets are available on a wide range of issues. -------------------- Laura Murphy Lee is Director of the Washington Office of the ACLU. ============================================================= ACLU Free Reading Room | A publications and information resource of the gopher:// | American Civil Liberties Union National Office | | "Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty"


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