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March 1998 Email this to a friend
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The Gypsy Law
How archaic!

Published in a recent edition of the The New York Times was a men- tion about the New Jersey state legislature's imminent repeal of the so-called "gypsy law." Purported to be New Jersey's "last-known vestige" of official discrimination, the gypsy law was an 80-year-old statute permitting municipalities to regulate "roving bands of nomads, commonly called Gypsies." Coming from the state legislature that first enacted Megan's Law– this all seems a bit ironic.

The gypsy law, enacted in 1917, allowed local governments to make laws and ordinances to license the various forms of transportation used by gypsies, like horse-drawn carts, as well as their businesses, any goods they sold, places where they were entertained and where they could rent property.

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"The law was unquestionably discriminatory and an insult to many New Jersey residents," said the author of the repeal legislation, Assemblywoman Nilsa I. Cruz-Perez, a Democrat from Camden. Cruz-Perez, a native of Puerto Rico, was the first Hispanic woman elected to the New Jersey Legislature. When learning that the gypsy law was still on the books in 1997, she was "shocked."

From fire to frying pan

Yet Cruz-Perez and her legislative colleagues had no trouble enacting Megan's Law in 1996 (it was approved

by an overwhelming margin). And they probably expressed elation in 1997 when President Clinton effectively made it the law of the land.

Megan's Law, named for the young victim of a paroled rapist who was living anonymously in a suburban neighborhood, is a statute that subjects anyone convicted of even minor sex offenses to a whole gamut of discriminatory restrictions including compulsory registration and humiliating and potentially dangerous public exposure– typically after they've served the majority of a lengthy mandatory minimum prison term. In many communities across America where homosexuality may be publicly tolerated but strongly discouraged, a gay man caught with 1960s physique magazines or a queer educator considered to be "corrupting young people" may find their lives governed by their local version of Megan's Law.

But back to the gypsies. Generally of Eastern European descent yet sometimes endowed with Asiatic traits, these nomadic peoples can trace their ancestry back more than 1,000 years to a caste in northern India that speaks the Romany language. Gypsies have been much maligned in Western societies. Decent citizenry were fond of painting gypsies with a broad derogatory brush– often demonizing them as thieves or child seducers with a perceived "evil eye." Decent folk tended to express fear, hatred and outrage whenever the "dirty vagabonds" appeared in their communities. Gypsies (usually single adults cast out of a gypsy clans for breaking some Magyar taboo) who actually decided to live in established communities were often singled out and victimized by random acts of vandalism or outright violence.

The gypsy law must have been particularly onerous. "Can you imagine, arriving in a town, and having to tell village officials why you're there, what you plan to do, where you plan to stay and when you're leaving?" asked Cruz-Perez.

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League and a member of President Clinton's Holocaust Memorial Council, welcomed the New Jersey legislature's belated action. "I think the very fact that such a stain has been expunged is cause for celebration," The Times quoted him as saying.

Added Foxman, "There is no question in my mind that there are other similar discriminatory laws in states across the country, but hopefully, this will spur people to do some research, dig them out and get rid of them." Perhaps someone could point Foxman in the direction of say, Megan's Law? **

Editor's Note: from The Guide, March 1998

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