A petition from a group of Hasidic Jews seeking minority status to qualify for special federal aid has triggered a furor among some blacks, small business groups and even some members of Congress.
Rep. Parren J. Mitchell (D-Md.), father of the legislation intended to aid primarily blacks and Hispanics but under which the Hasidic Jews are now seeking relief, is opposing the petition, which some of his colleagues on the House Small Business Committee are supporting it.
The petition has pointed up several sensitive questions concerning rights of religious groups and separation of church and state. It may also open up the minority-benefits pot to other religious and ethnic groups besides blacks, Hispanics, American Indians and Asian Pacific Americans. The last group was included recently in the socially disadvantaged group.
For example, some Pakistani-Americans and Eastern Indian citizens are considering applying to get into the program, said Carl Basnett, an SBA consultant who is coordinating the Hasidics' case.
"One concern is, where will it end?" Basnett said. "We've got a hard one here. We want to be fair to the Hasidics too."
"I see this as a real serious problem," Mitchell said last night. "I might be sympathetic toward the economic conditions of the Hasidic Jews . . . But there's a limited pie."
"What happens in terms of separation of church and state?" Mitchell asked. "This is clearly a religious group."
Mitchell said that the Unification Church, run by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, could also claim to be socially disadvantaged. "What about the Amish in Pennsylvania?" Mitchell asked.
"The bottom line is this," Mitchell continued, "I have a very serious concern about whether or not we should open the door (to) religious groups which could raise really, really serious contsitutional problems. This is a really tough one."
On the other hand, the Hasidim received 38 letters of support, including those from Sens. Abraham Ribicoff (D-Conn.) and Charles Mathias (R-Md.) and Reps. John J. LaFalce (D-N.Y.), a member of the House Small Business Committee, and Geraldine A. Ferraro (D-N.Y.).
Those congressmen who sent letters of support with the Hasidics' petition are Sen. Jacob Javits (R-N.Y.) and Reps. Jospeh P. Addabbo (D-N.Y.), Benjamin Gilman (R-N.Y.), James J. Howard (D-N.J.), Steven J. Solarz (D-N.Y.) and Leo C. Zeferetti (D-N.Y.)
In a petition filed with the SBA, the Hasidic group said that their businessmen are often shunned by outsiders because they "speak halting and broken English compounded by a thick accent," and ave unusual dress, such as side locks, bearded, black frock coats, broad-trimmed hats, prayer shawls and white collarless shirts worn by the men, and unique hair styles for male children. Married women must wear "artifical haripieces," the petition said.
In addition, the ultra-orthodox Jews have special dietary restrictions and follow strict religious customs that "contribute to an overall image of strangeness and complement the other visible difference that set them apart from the rest of the population."
The Hasidim also claim that they shouldn't be prohibited from benefiting from the mainstream of American business because of their religious beliefs and customs, which they say are protected under the constitution. In contrast, many of the 24 letters in opposition to their petition said that religion is a matter of choice and is unlike the situation of blacks or Hispanics who have no choice of skin color or ethnic background.
The SBA had set yesterday as the cut-off date for comment on the Hasidic petition, but because so many letters and telephone calls concerning the issues were received, the deadline for comment may be extended, Basnett said.