Church-State Relations

The American Jewish Committee believes that the First Amendment's twin guarantees of the free exercise of religion and the separation of church and state work together to ensure that Americans of all faiths and of no faith can live as their consciences dictate. Respecting these constitutional mandates is also the surest way of avoiding division in our pluralistic society.
AJC's Statement on Church-State Relations

AJC seeks to protect our cherished "first freedoms" in the courts and through legislative and grassroots advocacy. Since filing its first amicus ("friend of the court") brief in 1923 supporting the rights of Catholic parents to send their children to parochial schools, AJC continues to be involved in most of the landmark religious liberty and church-state debates, including the following:

Transcript of AJC Consultation on Religious Expression in the Public Square:
A Conversation with Professor Richard Parker of Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government

New Report Analyzes Importance of Church-State Separation

AJC Files Brief Opposing Ten Commandments Display in Kentucky Courthouse

AJC Disappointed with Decision on AmeriCorps Education Awards Program

Public Display of the Ten Commandments: AJC has long been a staunch defender of church-state separation as the surest guarantor of religious liberty for all Americans. In 1978, AJC joined in a brief opposing the mandatory display of the Ten Commandments in Kentucky public schools in Stone v. Graham, the U.S. Supreme Court's only ruling on the issue of a Ten Commandments display. In Stone, the Court acknowledged the religious nature of the Ten Commandments, stating: "[t]he Ten Commandments are undeniably a sacred text in the Jewish and Christian faiths, and no legislative recitation of supposed secular purpose can blind us to that fact."

In 2003, AJC joined in a brief with the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Glassroth v. Moore, opposing a granite monument displaying the Ten Commandments placed by Alabama's Chief Justice Roy Moore in the rotunda of the State Judicial Building. In the brief, AJC argued that the monument violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution in that it offended the freedom of conscience of the non-religious and those outside the Judeo-Christian tradition, as well as sent a message of exclusion to many Jews and Christians who do not adhere to the particular version of the Ten Commandments depicted in the monument.

In December 2004 and January 2005, AJC filed amicus briefs with the U.S. Supreme Court in Van Orden v. Perry, opposing the display of the Ten Commandments on the grounds of the state capitol in Texas, and McCreary County v. American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky, opposing their display in courthouses. AJC expressed its opposition to the public display of the Ten Commandments in these briefs, especially where citizens of many faiths and of no faith convene daily to seek justice, an audience for their concerns, and services from their government.

Click below to read AJC's briefs opposing the public display of the Ten Commandments:

McCreary County v. American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky (pdf)
Van Orden v. Perry (pdf)
Glassroth v. Moore (pdf)

Vouchers: AJC believes that the use of public funds to provide vouchers with which students may attend primary and secondary parochial schools is in violation of the First Amendment's Establishment Clause and therefore unconstitutional. In our view, vouchers also represent an ineffective remedy to the serious challenges facing some of America's public schools. As such, AJC has opposed voucher programs around the country through grassroots and legislative advocacy and in the courts.

AJC filed an amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Zelman v. Simmon-Harris, a challenge to Cleveland's school voucher program. In a 5-4 decision, the Court in 2002 upheld the program on the ground that parents exercised independent choice in selecting religious schools for their children. AJC also serves as "of counsel" to the plaintiffs in lawsuits challenging voucher programs in Colorado and Florida.

Click here to read AJC's brief in Zelman v. Simmon-Harris. (pdf)

AJC Urges Florida's Highest Court to Strike Down School Voucher Program

Religious Accommodation: AJC has historically been a strong advocate on behalf of religious liberty and has participated in numerous cases and supported many legislative proposals designed to protect the constitutional guarantee of the free exercise of religion. Recent examples of that advocacy have been our efforts in support of the Workplace Religious Freedom Act, a bill that would strengthen existing law with respect to reasonable accommodation in the workplace of religious practice, and our work on initiatives restoring the pre-Smith standard pursuant to which a state must show a compelling interest that cannot be met by more narrowly tailored means before it may substantially burden religious practice. In addition, in 2002 AJC joined in an amicus brief to the Supreme Court of California in support of the constitutionality of a state statute requiring employers who offer their employees health insurance coverage with prescription drug benefits to also include coverage for prescription contraceptive methods, so long as certain religious institutions are exempted.

AJC will remain a steadfast defender of religious freedom and maintain its current position on matters affecting free exercise rights.

Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA) 

Similarly, as part of its mission to defend the religious freedoms of all Americans, and of Jews in particular, AJC has maintained a consistent campaign against unjustly restrictive local zoning policies that prevent the establishment of religious assemblies and houses of worship in residential areas or otherwise make it impossible for religious groups to practice their faiths. Likewise, AJC believes that legislative action to accommodate the religious exercise rights of prisoners is not only constitutional, but commendable and sometimes mandatory. In accordance with these principles, AJC was instrumental in securing the passage of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA), a federal bill that protects religious groups from discriminatory land use laws that encroach on the free exercise of their faiths, and secures the religious liberties of institutionalized persons. The act applies to programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance or when "the substantial burden affects, or removal of that burden would affect ... commerce ... among the several states." Since its enactment, AJC has joined coalitional briefs in support of the statute's constitutionality in cases across the country, in both the institutionalized persons and land use contexts.

Cutter v. Wilkinson

Recently, AJC filed an amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court in support of RLUIPA's constitutionality, together with a diverse coalition of religious and civil liberties organizations in the case of Cutter v. Wilkinson. We asserted AJC's belief that RLUIPA's purpose - accommodation of the free exercise of religion - is secular, it does not impermissibly advance religion or entangle the government in religious practices, and is not an endorsement of religion, but rather an endorsement of the value and importance of the basic constitutional rights found in the First Amendment.

Click here to read AJC's brief in Cutter v. Wilkinson. (pdf)

Government Funding of Faith-Based Social Services Providers:
The concept of "charitable choice," initially embodied in the welfare reform act of 1996 and subsequently incorporated in a variety of legislative enactments and proposals, inappropriately seeks to expand the terms under which governmental funds are made available to faith-based social service providers. AJC opposes charitable choice because it sanctions the funding of religious institutions even where their social service programs are permeated by a religious message, thereby violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution. Furthermore, "charitable choice" is, in effect, government funded discrimination because it allows religious institutions to make hiring and other employment decisions on the basis of religion with respect to persons who provide publicly funded services.

AJC opposes government funding of social service programs operated by pervasively religious institutions.

At the same time, AJC recognizes that, for many decades, religious institutions and their affiliates have been among the major providers of social services on the American scene, both for their faith communities and for the larger society. While firm in the belief that government should not abdicate its responsibilities to provide social services, AJC believes that both the government and the public are best served by the utilization of a wide variety of providers. Accordingly,

AJC supports governmental funding of secular social service programs operated by religiously-affiliated organizations where effective church-state separation safeguards are in place.

Corporation for National and Community Service v. American Jewish Congress

In November 2004, AJC filed a coalitional amicus brief with the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals in Corporation for National and Community Service v. American Jewish Congress, a case which involves a government program that offers award recipients money in exchange for community service, including teaching in religious schools. In the brief, we asked the court to strike down the program, arguing that it results in impermissible government indoctrination in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. "The Supreme Court has clearly stated that government aid to religious institutions must arrive as a result of the genuine and independent choices of individuals," said Jeffrey Sinensky, the American Jewish Committee's general counsel, "and this program does not meet that standard."

Click here to read AJC's brief in Corporation for National and Community Service v. American Jewish Congress. (pdf)

Recent News:

Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA)

The federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, 42 U.S.C. §2000bb-1 (“RFRA”), which was passed by Congress in 1993, requires that generally applicable laws not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion unless the government can show that the law is in furtherance of a compelling interest and is the least restrictive means of furthering that interest. The statute altered the standard set in 1990 by the U.S. Supreme Court in Employment Division v. Smith, where the court held that generally applicable laws may be applied to religious exercise, regardless of whether the government demonstrates a compelling interest for its rule. After RFRA was enacted, there were a series of cases challenging its constitutionality, including City of Boerne v. Flores, where the Supreme Court ruled that Congress had exceeded its authority in applying RFRA to the states. Because Boerne did not address the issue of RFRA’s applicability to the federal government, RFRA remains binding at the federal level.

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