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66 Jewish Groups File High Court Brief on Religion in Schools

Sixty-six Jewish religious and civic bodies Joined in a law brief submitted to the United States Supreme Court today, challenging religious exercises in the public schools. The friend-of-the-court brief was submitted in the two cases scheduled for argument before the High Court Wednesday, testing the constitutionality of school Bible reading and recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. One of the cases arose in Pennsylvania, the other in Maryland.

Signing the brief were the Synagogue Council of America, representing Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jewish congregational and rabbinical bodies; and the National Community Relations Advisory Council representing six national Jewish agencies and 57 local Jewish community councils across the country. The brief was submitted by Leo Pfeffer, general counsel of the American Jewish Congress, as attorney for the SCA and the NCRAC.

In their joint brief, the Jewish organizations advanced these main arguments in urging the court to declare unconstitutional a Pennsylvania statute requiring daily reading from the Bible, and a Baltimore school board rule requiring daily reading from the Bible or recitation of the Lord’s Prayer:

1. School religious practices that confer official sanction on the religious literature or liturgy of a particular faith violate the “establishment of religion” clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

2. “Voluntary” participation in sectarian school practices is a fiction; the pressure on children to conform is such that religious exercises in school are a denial of the “free exercise” of religion guaranteed under the First Amendment.

3. The long-standing nature of many school religious practices does not make them valid or constitutional.

The Jewish organization’s brief declared: “It is constitutional to study the Bible as a work of literature. It is, we contend, unconstitutional as an act of devotion. If the approach to the Bible or religious music or art is an intellectual study, it is proper in the public school. If the approach is worship or faith, it belongs in the home, church and synagogue.”

Summarizing the argument, the joint NCRAC-SCA brief concluded: “A judicial decision forbidding State-sponsored religious practices such as Bible reading or Lord’s Prayer recitation does not manifest hostility to religion, any more than the constitutional provisions on which it is based indicated any hostility to religion on the part of the fathers of our Constitution. On the contrary, history has validated the premise upon which the First Amendment is based–that the separation of Church and State is best for religion and best for the State.”

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