State Senate Approves Museum of Tolerance, Sends Bill to Assembly

Times Staff Writer

A measure to set aside $5 million for a proposed Museum of Tolerance at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in West Los Angeles has passed the state Senate with a single dissenting vote.

The bill, by Senate President Pro Tem David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles), won approval on a 36-1 vote Thursday and was sent to the Assembly.

The lone opponent was Sen. Ralph Dills (D-Gardena), who was listed among the bill's more than 60 original co-sponsors.

Dills said he was reluctant to switch his position because the goal of the museum is to educate people about the roots of prejudice and the consequences of intolerance, such as the Holocaust.

But Dills, who once was a judge, said that upon reflection he was troubled by the proposal because it is a potential violation of the doctrine of church-state separation and might be unconstitutional on both the state and federal levels.

The longtime lawmaker, whose district includes parts of the South Bay, Long Beach and Compton, said his objections stem from the fact that the Wiesenthal Center, named after the famed Nazi hunter, is part of Yeshiva University.

For one thing, Dills said he is bothered because the center and the 8-year-old university share the same board of directors.

For another, he contended that Yeshiva University "was founded and based upon and teaches religion."

As a result, he said, "I don't feel we should appropriate public monies to a private university which has as its purpose the teaching of religion."

Sen. Alan Robbins (D-Van Nuys) countered that the center "has nothing to do with religion except for the fact that many of the people who were killed (in the Holocaust) were Jewish."

In a telephone interview after the Senate vote, Rabbi Marvin Hier, who heads both the center and the university, also disagreed with Dills. He said the school is an academic institution specializing in Judaic studies, not a theological seminary.

"Of course, most of the people who specialize in Judaic studies are of the Jewish faith," Hier added.

Earlier in the week, Hier said he agreed to expand the museum to reflect other examples of intolerance, such as the systematic slaughter of Armenians by the Turks between 1915 and 1924 in Armenia.

But Hier insisted that he was not adding the Armenians to the bill to gain the approval of Gov. George Deukmejian, who is of Armenian descent.

In a low-key pitch on the Senate floor Thursday, Roberti argued that in dealing with the Holocaust "we sometimes cannot afford to be ultra-strict constructionists" on the issue of constitutional separation of church and state.

"We can't split hairs on an issue as important as this," he insisted.

In response to another of Dills' complaints, Roberti said that a separate board will be set up for the center before the bill reaches Deukmejian's desk.

Roberti went on to argue that there is precedent for the gift to the center.

He noted that the state has issued bonds to help private schools build dormitories.

Moreover, California state scholarships, though awarded to individuals, are often spent at religious schools, he said. For example, the senator said he used such a scholarship to attend Loyola University.

The center, with Roberti's help, has been vigorously lobbying for the bill for the past month as it pursues its goal of raising $35 million for the museum, including the $5 million from the state.

So far the center has raised slightly over $10 million. It has lined up support from a wide array of groups within and outside of the Jewish community, including the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations, the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley and San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein.

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