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The Reverend Chloe Breyer is the Director of the Interfaith Center in New York City.
Whether advocating for the Americans with Disabilities Act, The Family and Medical Leave Act, the Head Start Expansion Act, or the Fair Housing Amendment, Senator Kennedy worked to make sure no American was left behind.
Some of the legislation he championed, however, has had special significance for people of faith.
Consider the bill enabling religious leaders in New York City to provide spiritual care to family members and clean-up workers at Ground Zero in the immediate aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks of Sept. 11th 2009. Local Episcopalian, Muslim, Buddhist, and Jewish chaplains received training from The Red Cross’ National Spiritual Care Aviation Incident Response Team in the days that followed 9/11. They took shifts at the World Trade Center Site, the Family Assistance Center, and the make-shift morgue across town to provide spiritual care to bereaved family members or bless body parts pulled from the rubble by clean-up workers, fire-fighters, and police in the months following 9/11.
This work would not have been possible without Senator Kennedy’s imaginative response to the complaints of victims’ family members in the ValuJet 592 crash in the Everglades in 1996. Kennedy worked with other members of the Senate to pass the Aviation Disaster Family Act of 1996–a bill that made the National Transportation Safety Board accountable–through contracting with the Red Cross–for providing emotional care for victims’ families in the aftermath of a plane crash. In the months following 9/11 and the build-up to war in Iraq, many conservative church-goers critical of Kennedy’s anti-war stand, overlooked the fact that he had, in this obscure piece of legislation, helped Americans most directly impacted by the attacks make spiritual sense of their tragic loss.
Likewise, The Civil Rights Act for Institutionalized Persons ensured the constitutional rights of people in government institutions–the elderly, the disabled, the mentally ill, the incarcerated. Not only did the law enable the US Department of Justice to investigate institutions to ensure humane living conditions, but the law also detailed the protection of diverse religious practices for the institutionalized by providing access to religious leaders of different faith traditions.
Religious freedom and access to emergency pastoral care are hardly examples of the “liberal” causes Senator Kennedy was so often described by his foes as crusading for exclusively. Encouraging local religious leaders to offer their support in a time of crisis, however, should garner Kennedy praise from both sides of the aisle–Americans of faith and non-believers alike.