Thursday, June 23, 2022

The Free Exercise Thereof...

Chief Justice, John Roberts (Wikipedia)
It is impossible to overstate the value of a Jewish education. If recent polls with respect to the fate of the American Jew tell us anything – it tells us that.  As I have said what seems like a countless number of times - the over 70% intermarriage rate of secular Jews is clear evidence of it. Not that they are all devoid of a Jewish education, But to the extent that they had any – it was hardly anything near what Orthodox religious schools teach their students. And thus had little if any impact on their sense of Jewish identity in most cases 

It is indisputable to my mind that Orthodox Jewish day schools and high schools are in the main responsible for the stability and growth of the Orthodox Jewish community. I’m not saying that the system is perfect. Not by a long shot. But it is by far better in perpetuating Judaism than any other alternative that has been tried in the past.

One of the most serious obstacles in furtherance of that objective is the high cost of a religious education. If we want our children to get the best education possible in both Limudei Kodesh (religious studies) and Limudei Chol (secular studies) we need to pay for it. Excellence in education does not come cheap. Good teachers are hard to find especially when their pay is much lower than it would otherwise be in other professions. Which is why a lot of very talented people opt not to teach. They need to support their families too. 

That means that high tuitions are a given. Most schools often to not even meet their budgetary obligations. Even with those high tuitions and successful fund raisers.

This the current conundrum. No parent is willing to sacrifice their child to a second rate teacher in a second rate school. And yet  the vast majority of Orthodox Jewish parents cannot afford to pay for it.

If I understand correctly we may very well be in crisis mode. There simply is not enough money generated to meet the deservedly high expectations of Orthodox Jewish parents these days. Orthodox community advocacy groups are scratching their collective heads trying to figure out a solution to this endless and increasing problem.

Among the many things that would help is if the United States would honor its mission of assuring all of its children a free education at public expense. Which is what the pubic school system is all about. But the public school system is not the only place children are educated. There are a lot of private schools that do that too. Each with an additional mission of their own. Some of those private schools religious.

Up to this point in time, the formerly Left leaning Supreme Court held that any public funds given to religious schools would be a violation of the First Amendment. Which in part states: 

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof… 

The argument being that by giving a religious school money they would in essence be supporting that religion in violation of the Establishment Clause. Even if that money was earmarked and used exclusively for a virtually identical secular studies curriculum to that of the public schools.

I never understood that argument. Because it denies religious students the very educational rights the government has promised to all students. Which should include those that choose a school that adds a religious curriculum to their school day.

Thanks to former President Trump, things have changed drastically for the Supreme Court whose now 6-3 conservative majority sees things pretty much the same way I do. 

In a 6-3 decision on  Carson v. Makin  earlier this week, the court decided to knock down a Mane law that forbade vouchers from being distributed to parents of children in a religious school. Considering it to be a denial of the ‘Free exercise’ clause of the First Amendment. It denied the right of a parent to optimally teach their children their religious values for lack of ability to pay the high costs of tuition. The Maine vouchers were designed for specifically for those parents. The Court ruled that this was discrimination that denied their religious rights.

I could not agree more. Although we are not there yet, my hope is that this will lead to government funding of a secular curriculum in religious schools too. Because if that happens it will help reduce the oppressive financial burden of all tuition paying parents. It might encourage some secular Jews to seek a Jewish education for their own children. Having originally totally rejected the idea because of the high cost. 

I applaud the Court’s decision. And I reject the idea that this is somehow a violation of the First Amendment. Which has always been used to deny the religious population the benefits of any financial government support for their schools.

One of the most unfortunate aspects of this dispute is that the liberal Jewish establishment (consisting of mostly non observant Jews) has been in the forefront of opposition. Liberals see any money going to a religious institution for any reason as a violation of the First Amendment. There is no better example of this than the response of the ADL’s Jonathan Greenblatt (who unsurprisingly is both non observant and liberal). He said the following in a tweet: 

We're deeply disturbed by today's #SCOTUS decision in Carson v. Makin which marks the first time the Court holds that a State must – not may – pay for religious education as part of a tuition program meant to provide free public education for all.

(Deeply disturbed. If only he was as disturbed about the 70% intermarriage rate of his non observant coreligionists. But I digress.) This is in concert of the liberal justices who dissented. As noted by Justice Stephen Breyer:

Breyer said in his written dissent that the ruling could open the door to broader public funding

To which I would respond with a hearty, ‘So what?!’ Even in the unlikely event that it did open that door, it would not be a violation of the establishment clause if every single religion were given the same funding as public schools. The Free Exercise Clause should allow parents to choose a religious school and expect equal support to that of the public schools. That would change nothing with respect to the secular nature of the nation. It instead reinforces the Free Exercise clause. 

I agree with Chief Justice John Roberts who said the following about the law the Court struck down: 

“Regardless of how the benefit and restriction are described, the program operates to identify and exclude otherwise eligible schools on the basis of their religious exercise.” 

I agree with virtually all faith organizations that see this as a win for their First Amendment.  They include the OU whose Nathan Diament said the following:

“A state discriminating against religion — as Maine did in its tuition assistance program — is just as unconstitutional as a state promoting one particular religion,” the O.U.’s Washington director, Nathan Diament, said in a statement. “In today’s ruling, the Supreme Court has advanced religious liberty for all Americans of all faiths.”

Mostly this is a win for all parents of religious schools whose oppressive tuition burden would be considerably lightened.

Thank you SCOTUS.