President Obama Signs Into Law Meng Bill to Make the Desecration of Cemeteries a Violation of Religious Freedom
Aug 12, 2014
Legislation sponsored by U.S. Rep. Grace Meng (D-Queens) to make the desecration of cemeteries a violation of religious freedom, has been signed into law by President Obama.
The Protect Cemeteries Act (H.R. 4028) amends the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 to include the vandalizing of cemeteries as one of many infringements on the right to freedom of religion.
The new law, which was suggested by individuals from the greater New York Jewish community including Meng’s constituents in Queens, will have a significant impact on Jews in the United States and around the world since many have ancestors buried in their families’ homelands. In many cases, there are few or no relatives left in those distant communities to preserve and protect the graves, making it critical that there be laws to protect the burial grounds there. The law aims to combat anti-Semitism and religiously-motivated vandalism of cemeteries – which occurs with alarming regularity – and also prevent developers from building over cemeteries, a new and emerging threat in places where no Jewish communities remain. The law will also affect other impacted communities such as the Greek community by protecting Greek Orthodox cemeteries across the globe as well.
The bill is Meng’s first piece of legislation to become law, an unusual accomplishment for a freshman lawmaker – particularly a member of the minority party serving in the most partisan Congress in recent memory.
“I applaud President Obama for signing this important bipartisan legislation into law,” said Meng. “This new law makes it clear that that our society will not tolerate the desecration of cemeteries whether motivated by anti-Semitism, hate or greedy and uncaring developers. It will be a new and critical tool to combat the desecration of cemeteries, and provide a much needed boost towards promoting preservation, tolerance and respect for cemeteries across the globe. I cannot be happier that this critical piece of legislation is now the law of the land. Many thanks to Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) for handling the measure in the Senate, and I commend all my colleagues in both chambers who supported it.”
The International Religious Freedom Act, which fights against religious persecution around the world, sets forth acts against religious freedom that the U.S. officially condemns, including the impeding of religious assembly, sponsoring slander campaigns, and prohibiting the pursuit of education or public office, among others. Under the 1998 law, the U.S. can impose penalties on countries that obstruct religious freedom. These include slashing foreign aid, public condemnation, cancelling official visits and cultural or scientific exchanges, imposing trade sanctions and prohibiting import and exporting agreements, among others.
Meng’s law also empowers the Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad, a panel established in the 1980’s that works to identify and preserve cemeteries, memorials and buildings in foreign countries that are associated with the cultural heritage of Americans. The Commission has done much work in areas of the former Soviet Union, where Jewish communities were destroyed by the Holocaust and where power subsequently passed to atheistic, communist regimes. It is essential to protect religious freedom in these areas, where political instability and anti-Semitism are widespread. The genocides of the 20th century destroyed communities and left their burial grounds uncared for and unpreserved.
Meng introduced the Protect Cemeteries Act this past February and it was approved by the House Foreign Affairs Committee – of which she is a member – in April. It passed the House in May and was approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last month. The full Senate passed it late last month and President Obama signed it into law this past Friday.