Jewish Views on Religious Freedom

Jews have long supported the separation of church and state as integral to protecting the religious freedom of all. In fact, many students of American Jewish life believe that the struggle to expand the separation of church and state in the U.S. is one of the greatest contributions Jews have rendered to the enlargement of American freedom.

Neither biblical mandates nor rabbinic rulings completely explain the Jewish community's strong commitment to religious freedom and the separation of church and state. Rather, it is historical experience that demonstrates that the Jewish people suffered religious persecution in the past when governments were controlled by a particular religion.

As citizens, of course, we accept and respect the laws of the land, including those laws that include provisions of which we were and are apprehensive. However, we reaffirm our long-established position that the principle of the separation of church and state is best for both church and state and is indispensable to the preservation of the spirit of religious liberty. Through history, we have learned that both religion and state flourish best when they remain separate. In the United States, for example, Jews have long been free to pursue our faith and to organize our communal lives, equal under law and in practice, without government interference. America, through its Constitution, created a system of religious liberty that has proven to be generally fair and effective, one that American Jews wish to preserve.

Some suggest that government support for religion should be permitted as long as no religion is favored over another and no citizen is forced to participate in any particular religion - or in any religion at all. However, the weight of evidence suggests the forefathers considered and rejected this approach. Even benign, non-coercive endorsements of religion make outsiders of those who are non-adherents of the endorsed faith. A proper interpretation of the Establishment Clause ensures that one's standing in the political community is not affected by one's standing in the religious community.

Any program that permits religious schools to receive public funds is poor public policy and certainly invites legal challenges. A central principle of the First Amendment's Establishment Clause is that members of particular faiths, and not the government, should fund religious institutions. Government funding for religious education undermines the First Amendment and harms religious liberty. When vouchers are used toward expenses related to religious school education, they become an indirect government funding of sectarian institutions.

The increasing religious pluralism in the United States beckons American Jews to turn our heritage of religious liberty and church-state separation heritage into a legacy. The Founders aspiration - that religion should involve a voluntary response and that government should remain neutral toward religion - must be converted into practical reality. More than 200 years ago, Daniel Carroll of Maryland declared that "the rights of conscience are ... of particular delicacy and will little bear the gentlest touch of governmental hand." Carroll's lofty view of conscience captures our understanding of our past and guides our vision of the future.

America's embrace of religious liberty has produced the most religiously pluralistic nation in history. The success of that bold experiment in liberty cannot be denied, but its future is always at risk.