There is an intriguing case in London where the British courts will decide who is a Jew and who decides such a question. The British have long maintained publicly supported religious schools — an affront to the separation of church and state. Now, inevitably, the state must decide who can be excluded from one of the Jewish schools run by the government. Not surprisingly, at the heart of the controversy is Lord Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, who recently blamed secularism for the decline and potential fall of Western Civilization, here. He insists that only children with Jewish mothers (recognized in Orthodox synagogues) are truly Jewish.
The daughter of David Lightman was one of the children denied entry in the Jews’ Free School, one of the many publicly supported religious schools. She was denied entry because her mother converted to Judaism in a reform synagogue rather than an Orthodox synagogue. The Jews’ Free School was founded in 1732 and is one of roughly 7,000 publicly financed religious schools..
Sacks and others do not recognize kids as Jewish unless they are recognized by the Orthodox sect. This has been a controversy in Israel for many years and has divided the Jewish population, (here). Many Jews reject Orthodox views and belong to conservative or reform synagogues.
The family of a child identified only as M lost in the initial case, but that ruling was overturned by the Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals found the use of Sacks’ definition of Jewish was discriminatory and that ““benign or malignant, theological or supremacist, makes it no less and no more unlawful.” Now, the Supreme Court will decided the question.
The case reaffirms that need for separation of church and state. Such questions should not be answered by the government, which should also not be in the business of subsidizing religious education. However, rather than questioning the state support of religious schools, the court will rule on who decides matters of faith — the religion or the State. Normally, I would be very sympathetic with the religious organizations that this is no question of judges to decide. However, these organizations asked for the intermingling of the state with religion — and may now reap the costs of such a failure of separation.
England seems to be moving aggressively away from separation principles with the incorporation of religious courts (here and schools in the system as well as public officials calling for more religion in society . Lord Sacks is one of those insisting that secularism is the cause of the impending loss of Europe to fundamentalism (a veiled reference to Islam). With the recent move by the Obama Administration to support the principle of blasphemy laws (here), the West appears to be moving in the wrong direction. If Sacks is concerned about Western Civilization, he may want to start with the separation of church and state.
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