A bill that would expand the authority of rabbinical courts to civilian matters was criticized yesterday by lawmakers, women's rights groups and several religious organizations, following Haaretz's expose of Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman's support of the initiative.

MK Ophir Pines-Paz said yesterday that his Labor Party, a member of the governing coalition, is not beholden to verbal commitments the ruling Likud party gave to fellow coalition member Shas to expand the courts' authority, and that he intends to work against Neeman's efforts to that end.

"Just as we were able to thwart Shas' initiatives in the last Knesset, this time we also won't allow it to pass," Pines-Paz said in response to yesterday's Haaretz Hebrew edition article. The bill was promised verbally to Shas as part of a coalition deal with Likud, even though it was not recorded as part of the parties' written agreement.

"Israel is not an autocracy, nor a halakhic state. The attempt to expand the control of rabbinical courts at the expense of [civil] courts represents a serious blow to the status quo, and a dangerous, unprecedented effort to give rabbinical courts authority over civilian matters," the lawmaker said.

MK Nitzan Horowitz of the New Movement-Meretz said, "This initiative should represent another call to the free-secular Israeli public to shake off this vacuous government, which started off by promising civil unions and is now strengthening rabbinical courts."

MK Shlomo Molla of Kadima said, "The justice minister is turning Israel into Iran."

Rabbi Eli Ben-Dahan, director of the rabbinical courts, expressed support for the bill.

"All in all we're not talking about expanding the rabbinical courts' authority, but of returning to the situation that was in place for 50 years, until the High Court annulled that authority several years ago," he said.

Liora Minka, chair of the national-religious women's organization Emunah, wrote to Neeman lamenting what she described as rabbinical courts' "discriminatory, strict and harmful" treatment of women, and called on the justice minister to prevent the expansion of their power.

Icar, a coalition of organizations promoting the rights of women bound in marriage by husbands refusing to grant a divorce, will stage a protest tomorrow opposite Neeman's home. The bill "would bolster the extortive power of the husband and deal a hard blow to women refused a get," said Robyn Shames, the coalition's director, referring to the Jewish halakhic term for a bill of divorce.

Rabbi Gilad Kariv, Director of Public Policy for the Reform Movement's Israel Religious Action Center, said the bill is tantamount to "granting a prize to a failed justice system," and that "it would be fitting for the justice minister to invest his energy in finding a solution to the struggle of those prevented from remarrying, as the government has committed to doing."

The Conservative Movement also called on Neeman to retract his support for the initiative.

"The step will bring tremendous damage to Israeli society in general, and the female population in particular," Rabbi Diana Villa of the Conservative Movement said.

Batia Kahane-Dror of the women's organization Mavoi Satum sent an open letter to Neeman reminding him of his past condemnation of expanded rabbinical court authority.

"Now that you are on the other side, will your conscience allow you to give them additional powers?" she wrote.