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Jews Oppose Inclusion of Question on Religion in 1960 U.S. Census

September 30, 1957
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Two major Jewish organizations today announced that they had voiced strong opposition to the projected inclusion of a question on religious belief or affiliation in the 1960 Federal population census. They warned that the inclusion of this question would violate the Constitution and that the data accumulated would be “of doubtful validity.”

In a memorandum submitted to the U.S. Secretary of Commerce by the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, the agencies stressed that the Federal Government, under the Constitution, may not aid religious groups or “take cognizance of religious affiliations of its citizens. ” Therefore, they emphasized “there can be no legitimate reason why the Federal Government should need information on the religious affiliations of its citizens, and no such legitimate reason has been asserted.”

The U.S. Bureau of Census in the Department of Commerce is now considering the inclusion of the question “what is your religion?” This action, the memorandum pointed out, would be the first time in United States history that “individuals would be required to state their religious affiliation or beliefs to census enumerators, duly designated officers of the Federal Government.”

Regarding the doubtful validity of the data, the agencies stated that this stemmed from the fact that questions of religious belief “are basically a matter of individual judgment not subject to objective verification” and hardly susceptible to accurate definition. They asserted that due to the complexity and varying subtleties of religious denominations, an undue responsibility is placed on a census enumerator whose data might be colored by his own religious identification.

Apart from its doubtful validity, religious data sought for Federal census purposes could serve as a dangerous precedent and lead to future “pressure by religious groups on the census bureau for more specific questions on religious belief, religious affiliation and the perusal of religious literature. ” Warning that this may eventually result in one religious group gaining advantage over others, the statement stressed: “Once the government has involved itself in this issue, I could not keep itself aloof from such religious conflict and, as a result, the true purpose of the doctrine of separation of church and state, namely, to keep the government aloof from sectarian strife, will have been prejudiced.”

Another dangerous precedent exists in allowing the census taker to determine “when he will insist on his legal right to receive an answer and when he will waive this right, ” as in the instance of response to the question of religious belief. Giving this authority to the census taker, the memorandum warned, “carries with it the seed of error and indefiniteness which would be fatal to a census.”

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