Statement to the United States Commission on Civil Rights
Statement to the United States Commission on Civil Rights By The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America; Institute for Public Affairs on Religion and the Schools
June 12, 1998
The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, currently celebrating its centennial year, is the nation's largest Orthodox Jewish umbrella organization. Known as the "Orthodox Union," we service 1,000 congregations throughout North America. The Institute for Public Affairs is the Orthodox Union's non-partisan public policy research and advocacy arm. The "IPA" is often involved in issues affecting religious freedom whether in the form of developing and advocating for legislation or filing legal briefs in court cases relevant to these important issues. The constituency of the Orthodox Union is committed to the adherence of traditional Judaism in the context of engaging with the contemporary world. Our members are highly educated in Jewish and secular knowledge and can be found in all fields of endeavor and professions. We feel blessed to live in a United States of America that, generally, has been more welcoming to people of faith, including devout Jews, than any other nation in world history.
As the Commission is aware, there is a wide range of issues in which religion and the schools relate to one another. These issues are some of the most prominent in America's public policy debates and include the propriety of prayer in the public schools, the teaching of material within public schools that is insensitive, or even hostile, to religious beliefs, as well as issues of equity associated with the funding of schools. The attitudes of the Orthodox Jewish community with regard to this range of issues is complex and does not necessarily fit into the tidy conceptual categories that often pass for public debate. At bottom, however, our position is based upon an insistence that religion and religious citizens be respected and, at a minimum, be treated no worse than any other set of principles that might guide a person's life.
Moral Messages and the Curriculum
Perhaps, the most troubling aspect of the way religion is related to in the public schools has to do with issues of moral values. It must be recognized that the secular-liberal value system that dominates American culture is, indeed, a value system. It champions individualism and personal freedom over community and authority. In some quarters, it insists upon moral relativism. These values are antithetical to many religious belief systems, including traditional Judaism. For believing Jews, there are certain absolute truths. They include the principles that world was created by the design of a Divine Being; that the Creator endowed all persons with the Divine image; that G-d reveled Himself at Sinai and delivered to humankind His law; and that the nuclear family, centered upon a loving heterosexual couple, is the preferred core building block for civilized society. For our community, the principles of the Torah revealed at Sinai are as relevant today in late-twentieth century America as they were in ancient Israel.
Thus, it is essential that our nation's schools teach America's children to respect religion and its role in shaping a moral society. We do not suggest that religion should be taught as theological truth in our common schools, but we insist that it not be taught as a quaint cult of antiquity either. It is not, from our perspective, inappropriate -- and certainly not unconstitutional -- to at least teach that while scientific evolution is one method of explaining the world--s existence, creation by design is another and that "alternative lifestyles" are not necessarily condoned by all segments of society.
Prayer in Public Schools
As a religious community, we take the power of prayer very seriously. It is upon this basis, as much as any other, that we oppose formal prayer in the public schools. For in order for such prayer to be instituted, a prayer would need to be crafted that would somehow relate to the beliefs of many faiths so as not to insult one or constitute coercion of another. Such a prayer, we expect, would be so watered down as to render it powerless, if not be an insult to the very institution of prayer. For this reason, and because we believe no individual should feel coerced to accede to prayer of another faith, we oppose formal prayer in the public schools. We do, however, favor accommodating the rights of individual students to engage in prayer. Students enjoy the rights of citizens elsewhere in society and schools should not be a religion-free zone. While Department of Education guidelines have attempted to communicate these principles to local schools, there are still too many instances in which administrators and teachers choose to err on the side of preventing religious activity rather than allowing it to proceed. An increased education campaign, targeted at school administrators in particular, informing them of students-- rights is warranted.
This week, the Supreme Court of the State of Wisconsin, relying heavily on precedents of the U.S. Supreme Court, declared a school voucher program in Milwaukee to be consistent with the Establishment Clause. >From the perspective of the Orthodox Jewish community, this result is proper and just. It was founded upon the understanding that the Constitution does not require the state to discriminate against religion. In Milwaukee, as elsewhere, the program is structured such that state funds are provided to a school child--s parent, and it is the parent who determines whether these funds are then allocated to a public, private or parochial school. The criteria for determining whether a family is eligible to receive a state funded voucher are religion neutral -- they are based upon economic need. Thus, the state is advancing the secular purpose of permitting parents to determine where their children are schooled irrespective of their economic circumstances.
The United States was founded by pioneering individuals seeking religious freedom. Sometimes it is forgotten that these persons were deeply religious and viewed vibrant religious communities as a indispensable tool to the formation of society and citizens. They would never have thought that our schools, of all places, where the character of our future citizens is formed would be rendered a bulwark against religion. While we must remain sensitive to the need for all religions to be respected, we must not make secularism the highest religion of all.
Copyright © 1997-2008 by Ira Kasdan. All rights reserved.