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American Jewish Committee Submits Views on Religion in U.S. Census

August 24, 1966
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

The American Jewish Committee submitted today a statement here outlining its attitude toward the issue whether a question on religion should be included in the 1970 Decennial Census. The statement was presented by Morris B. Abram, president of the organization, to the House Committee on Post Office and Civil Service which is now holding hearings here on plans of the U.S. Census Bureau for the 1970 census of the population in this country.

Mr. Abram reaffirmed in his statement the opposition of the American Jewish Committee to the inclusion of a question on religion in the 1970 census as a violation of the First Amendment. However, he urged that the U.S. Census Bureau study alternate methods of obtaining data on religion without the compulsion accompanying the Decennial Census.

“The reason for the Committee’s opposition,” Mr. Abram said, “is that answers to questions in the Decennial Census are mandatory under the law. To compel a person to profess his religious affiliation or lack of affiliation is to deprive him of religious freedom in direct violation of the First Amendment. The subject has never been included in a Decennial Census, and we earnestly hope that the Federal Government will not disturb this tradition.”

Mr. Abram recognized, however, the “widespread interest” in data on the religious composition of U.S. population, adding that such information has “considerable sociological cultural and practical uses.” This information, he said, “is needed by scholars and by the religious communities themselves, and is also of interest to the general public. The religious bodies, in spite of their best efforts, have been unable to compile adequate statistics about their memberships. There seems to be no way to gather reliable data without active involvement of the Federal Government.”


Pointing to the use of sampling as one alternative method of obtaining such data, the president of the AJ Committee said there were differences of opinion on the constitutionality of a question on religion where the answer would be entirely voluntary. He urged the House Committee to study the issue.

Mr. Abram recalled that a Census Bureau sample study in 1957, covering 35,000 households, had obtained valuable information on the religious make-up of the population, including statistics on the age, geographical distribution, fertility, and intermarriage rates of members of the major faith communities. These results were published in an official Census Bureau publication and were summarized in the American Jewish Year Book.

“An even larger sample might well uncover a correspondingly greater amount of valuable data,” Mr. Abram added, then added this caution: “If that course is followed, we maintain that any question asked must restrict itself to religious affiliation or identity as understood by each respondent, and must avoid probing into anyone’s religious belief or behavior. Any question asked must be clear, simple, and of a kind likely to attract a high rate of response. The wording of the question in the 1957 sample Census — ‘What is your religion?’– seems to have met these criteria, and might well serve as a model for future inquiries.”

In addition to the matter of religion, Mr. Abram’s statement discussed Census questions on ethnic identity, color or race, and civil rights. His conclusions were:

Ethnic Identity — While favoring the continuation of questions referring to ethnic origin, which in the past have “helped afford much valuable insight into the ethnic characteristics of the American population and its subgroups,” he urged an updating of some of the questions in keeping with changing situations. “For example,” he said, “to obtain data that will now be analogous in significance to those of 1960, it will now be necessary to ask about grandparents’ as well as parents’ place of birth.”

Color or Race — Data broken down by color or race have proved “widely useful,” Mr. Abram said, “as a measure of the extent to which various racial groups are discriminated against or otherwise disadvantaged,” and should be continued.

Civil Rights — To help implement Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Mr. Abram said, it has been suggested that questions on voting and registration be included in the 1970 Census. “If the Justice Department feels that such information is essential to enforce the Act, we see no objection to such questions,” he concluded.

Mr. Abram’s statement hailed the Census Bureau as “probably our nation’s greatest social research agency,” adding that “its scholarship, its technical competence, and the accuracy and value of its publications have deservedly won renown throughout the world.” He expressed certainty that the Bureau will continue to function on the same high level as in the past. “In that spirit we commend to your attention our expressed views,” he stated.

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