House panel advances bill sparked by JCC threats
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House panel advances bill sparked by JCC threats

Legislation calls for stiffer penalties for threats on religious institutions, putting them on par with actual attacks

Illustrative: The Albany JCC closed briefly due to a bomb scare, January 18, 2017. (Screenshot from Twitter via JTA)
Illustrative: The Albany JCC closed briefly due to a bomb scare, January 18, 2017. (Screenshot from Twitter via JTA)

WASHINGTON  — A US House of Representatives committee advanced a bill that would enhance penalties for threats on religious institutions, sparked by a wave of threats on Jewish community centers and other Jewish institutions earlier this year.

“This bill clarifies that federal law prohibits threats toward religious institutions, and that the protection extends beyond places of worship, to places such as religiously affiliated community centers,” said Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, after the committee advanced the Protecting Religiously Affiliated Institutions Act of 2017 bill to the full House on Thursday.

“Specifically, the legislation ensures that federal law will prohibit threats to property such as bomb threats, provided the threat is so serious that it obstructs an individual’s ability to exercise their right to practice their religion,” Goodlatte said in his statement.

Among other measures, the bill and an identical one under consideration in the Senate adds the word “threatens” to existing laws that criminalize attacks and attempted attacks on religious institutions.

Originally dubbed the Combating Anti-Semitism Act of 2017 when it was introduced in March, its sponsors, Reps. David Kustoff, R-Tenn., and Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., were reacting to a rash of bomb threats that shut down JCCs across the United States.

Most of the 162 bomb threats are suspected of coming from an American-Israeli Jewish man living in Ashdod, Israel, who was arrested in March. In addition to Israeli charges, the suspect faces federal charges in the United States.

An American-Israeli Jewish teenager, accused of making dozens of anti-Semitic bomb threats in the United States and elsewhere, is escorted by police as he leaves a courtroom in Rishon Lezion on March 23, 2017. (AFP/Jack Guez)

“We must stand united against acts of hate and protect the rights of all Americans to worship freely and without fear,” Kustoff, who is Jewish and a former US attorney and who represents Memphis’s suburbs, said in a statement.

The Anti-Defamation League praised the bill’s advancement. “This important legislation will help ensure the First Amendment ideal that every American should be able to practice their religious beliefs freely and safely,” its chairman, Marvin Nathan, said in a statement.

The Senate bill is sponsored by Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.

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