Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Through the Looking Glass

I am a huge history buff. In particular, I love to see where two particular cultures or countries diverged and then examine whether the reason for that divergence was justified. In 1791, the United States ratified the Bill of Rights which included a nifty provision prohibiting the establishment of a state religion by the federal government. Our former masters, the English, opted not to enact such a prohibition. Maybe they should have.

According to the New York Times, an English court of appeals has recently injected itself into the ancient debate on who is a Jew:
The case began when a 12-year-old boy, an observant Jew whose father is Jewish and whose mother is a Jewish convert, applied to the school, JFS. Founded in 1732 as the Jews’ Free School, it is a centerpiece of North London’s Jewish community. It has around 1,900 students, but it gets far more applicants than it accepts.
Britain has nearly 7,000 publicly financed religious schools, representing Judaism as well as the Church of England, Catholicism and Islam, among others. Under a 2006 law, the schools can in busy years give preference to applicants within their own faiths, using criteria laid down by a designated religious authority.
By many standards, the JFS applicant, identified in court papers as “M,” is Jewish. But not in the eyes of the school, which defines Judaism under the Orthodox definition set out by Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth. Because M’s mother converted in a progressive, not an Orthodox, synagogue, the school said, she was not a Jew — nor was her son. It turned down his application.
So where did the court come into this debate? Essentially, they decided that Judaism's definition of who is a Jew did not mesh with the UK's anti-discrimination laws:
[T]he court concluded that basing school admissions on a classic test of Judaism — whether one’s mother is Jewish — was by definition discriminatory. Whether the rationale was “benign or malignant, theological or supremacist,” the court wrote, “makes it no less and no more unlawful.”
The case rested on whether the school’s test of Jewishness was based on religion, which would be legal, or on race or ethnicity, which would not. The court ruled that it was an ethnic test because it concerned the status of M’s mother rather than whether M considered himself Jewish and practiced Judaism.
“The requirement that if a pupil is to qualify for admission his mother must be Jewish, whether by descent or conversion, is a test of ethnicity which contravenes the Race Relations Act,” the court said. It added that while it was fair that Jewish schools should give preference to Jewish children, the admissions criteria must depend not on family ties, but “on faith, however defined.”
Does a country that uses taxpayer dollars to fund religious education undermine the purpose of those religious schools when it dictates who is a member of that religion? Needless to say, this case will be making its way to the newly created Supreme Court of the United Kingdom for ultimate resolution.

Our founding fathers believed it was best to avoid excessive entanglement between religion and state. Looking at this case, and realizing that there will be no satisfactory outcome, makes me think that the United States was on the right side of history in 1791.

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