Memphis Commercial Appeal: Freshman Congressman David Kustoff's first bill targets religious intolerance
WASHINGTON – Freshman Congressman David Kustoff is looking to send a message about the importance of religious freedom with the filing of his first piece of legislation.
“Religious intolerance,” he said, “is not accepted.”
Kustoff’s bill, which the West Tennessee Republican introduced last week with Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Wa., was inspired by the recent spate of bomb threats at Jewish Community Centers across the country, including one in Nashville.
The Combating Anti-Semitism Act would increase the federal penalty for making bomb threats and other credible threats of violence against community religious centers. It also would enable authorities to prosecute such acts as a hate crime.
Kustoff, of Germantown, approaches the issue with a perspective shaped by his profession and religion.
He’s a former federal prosecutor. He served two years as the U.S. attorney for West Tennessee. He’s also one of only two Jewish Republicans in the House.
“Frankly, it wouldn’t matter what my religion is,” Kustoff said, explaining his motivation for the bill. “The government has to send a message that these threats and these actions won’t be tolerated, and they will be prosecuted. If someone breaks the law, they can go to prison for a long time.”
Since January, 167 bomb threats have targeted Jewish institutions, such as community centers, schools and synagogues, in 38 states and three Canadian provinces, according to the New York-based Anti-Defamation League.
The Gordon Jewish Community Center in Nashville was twice the target of bomb threats in January. Both times, the building was evacuated and searched, but no explosives were found.
Late last month, an 18-year-old Israeli-American was arrested by Israeli police and charged with making more than 100 bomb threat hoaxes at Jewish institutions across North America. The suspect, Michael Kaydar, is Jewish himself and has never lived in the United States.
Regardless, the rise in threats at religious community centers is deeply disturbing and makes it clear that existing federal laws are not a deterrent, Kustoff said.
Kustoff said he was surprised to learn that, under current law, threatening a religious center is a just misdemeanor that carries a penalty of up to one year in prison. His bill would make the crime a felony with a prison sentence of up to five years.
These threats also are hate crimes and should be prosecuted as such, Kustoff said.
“These acts have been specifically made in places of worship, places where people of different religions gather, whether it’s a threat against a church or a synagogue or community center or other places of religious gathering,” he said.
“We want to send a message that people can worship, they can gather at these places and not have to fear that it will be attacked.”
The Anti-Defamation League supports the bill.
“After the six waves of bomb threats against Jewish institutions this year, this bill elevates the issue under federal law and would help ensure an appropriately strong punishment for those who seek to threaten or intimidate a religious organization or community institution,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, the organization’s chief executive officer. “It sends a strong message that these crimes will not be tolerated.”
Michael Collins is the Washington correspondent for the USA Today Network-Tennessee. His weekly Tennessee in D.C. column highlights Volunteer State lawmakers, causes and connections. Contact him at 703-854-8927, at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @mcollinsNEWS.