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