The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, the nation’s largest Orthodox Jewish umbrella organization, is urging the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down an antiquated, anti-religious amendment contained in 30 state constitutions which stand in the way of state aid to religious institutions for virtually any purpose.
The Orthodox Union filed a “Friend of the Court” brief in support of Trinity Lutheran Church, which applied to the state of Missouri to make the church’s playground safer by resurfacing it with material made from recycled tires. The state offers the resurfacing program for children’s playgrounds using grants from waste management funds. Missouri denied Trinity Lutheran Church’s application under the state constitution’s “Blaine Amendment,” which prohibits government funds from being used – directly or indirectly – for houses of worship and parochial schools.
All but 10 states adopted the Blaine Amendment starting in in the late 1800s, when there was an increase in anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic sentiment in the wake of a major influx of Catholic immigrants to America. Although the original intent was to deny Catholic schools government funding, this soon expanded to a bias against all faiths, including Judaism.
Nathan Diament, the Orthodox Union’s Executive Director for Public Policy, issued the following statement:
“This case is more than just about righting the wrongs committed against a single church by a particular state; it’s about ending anti-religious discrimination in houses of worship and schools across the United States. This sort of nineteenth-century bigotry has no place in our country today.”
The high court’s ruling in the case will have a direct effect on the safety of the Jewish community, and other faith communities. There are now several significant federal and state programs that provide funding for houses of worship and parochial schools to keep congregants and students safe, such as the Department of Homeland Security’s Nonprofit Security Grant Program, which provides funds to increase building safety for nonprofits at risk of terror attacks, including synagogues; FEMA grants to help rebuild parochial schools damaged in disasters such as Hurricane Sandy; and a new law in New York City that pays for security guards at all non-public schools.
All of these programs provide aid to religious institutions on the basis of secular criteria for a secular purpose – keeping citizens safe. We are hopeful the high court will nullify this outdated, absolutist view of “strict separation” of church and state.