In 1961, a prominent American Orthodox activist named Moshe Sherer testified at a congressional hearing in favor of legislation that would grant federal funds to religious as well as secular private schools. By doing so, he broke with the mainstream of U.S. Jewish opinion, and the major Jewish advocacy organizations, which have consistently favored the strictest possible application of separation of church and state. His position has since then grown even more popular with Orthodox Jews in America, who must pay significant sums to send their children to religious schools. But, Michael A. Helfand explains, this position is not based solely on pragmatic concerns:
At their core, such calls for including religious schools in government funding programs were grounded in principles of equal standing and equal citizenship. Sherer, in his testimony, did highlight the budgetary struggles of Jewish day schools, noting that they “labor under the pall of constant financial crises.”
The bulk of his testimony, however, pressed for an inclusive approach to government funding on the basis of “American ideals.” . . . On this account, the denial of government funding to religious schools was wrong not because of the financial impact, but because it harmed religious citizens due to their faith, which Sherer described as discrimination.
[Yet] the core values underlying Orthodoxy’s advocacy for equal funding—anti-discrimination and equal citizenship—have often been ignored. Instead, the thrust of such advocacy is often misdescribed, in the form of characterizations that lionize separationists as advancing “principled” arguments against government funding, while describing Orthodox advocates as advancing “pragmatic” arguments in favor.
In this way, continued debates within the Jewish community over the appropriate degree of separation between church and state amount to principled clashes going to the heart of American Jewish identity. Both visions of church and state—one that demands absolute separation and another that requires a commitment to neutrality—draw from different visions of the appropriate space for religious pluralism in the public square.