Public funds, religious quarrels

Public funds, religious quarrels

An ongoing story out of Great Britain ought to give pause to advocates of government funding for private religious school education. In a nutshell, the British courts are debating whether the entrance criteria of one of its publicly funded Jewish day schools are discriminatory. A girl, identified as “M,” sought admission to the former Jews’ Free School (now JFS). She was rejected by the school on the grounds that her mother’s conversion to Judaism, conducted under non-Orthodox auspices, was invalid. Normally, this would spark controversy only within the Jewish community, where Orthodox and non-Orthodox authorities have long disputed “who is a Jew” and who has the right to say.

The British courts got involved because parochial schools in England accept government funding. An appeals court ruled for the girl’s family, saying an admissions policy based on matrilineal descent (meaning one is Jewish by birth only if one’s mother is Jewish) is by its nature racial and discriminatory. Imagine, wrote the court, if a Christian school rejected a believing Christian because her mother was born Jewish. Civil rights advocates would howl.

In the United States, the court’s involvement would be an unacceptable intrusion of the government into private religious affairs. In England, it’s fair game.

Here in America, families are looking for relief from the enormous burden of day school tuition. Communities are searching for creative solutions to reduce the costs of day school, improve quality, and expand philanthropic support. Others are looking to the government for assistance. In New Jersey, proponents of “school choice” are advocating the extension of federal funds currently allocated to state education to private schools, as well as a scholarship program for low-income children who choose private schools (corporations would get tax relief for donations they make to the scholarship funds).

As a community, we should consider all options, and rule out no idea so long as it honors our long-held commitment to the Constitution and the separation of church and state. The English case suggests why. In a much-needed community dialogue on funding day schools, we should explore the benefits of expanding government support for private education, and be honest about the drawbacks.

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