Response to Church, State and Religious Freedom, Miriam Jerris

I was wondering earlier what I could possibly add about separation of church and state that two previous speakers would not have already said.  It reminded me of the time that I was standing with a friend who had been a featured speaker at a conference and someone approached him and asked him how he felt about genocide. He said, “I’m against it!” It is a little how we must all feel when we first consider separation of church and state. As Humanists, we are for it!

What I want to consider today, is some of the problems that we, as Humanists, face when dealing with the issue of separation of church and state, particularly when dealing with those people with whom we agree. I am going to discuss this topic from the perspective of non interference of the state in the church, and leave the discussion of non interference of the church in the state for another time.

This issue of separation of church and state which seems so obvious to us in the United States is not so clear cut for Humanists in other countries.  About a year and a half ago, Ze’ev Katz, an Israeli and founder of the Israel Association for Secular and Humanistic Judaism, spoke at the Annual Meeting of the Society for Humanistic Judaism and some of what he had to say was shocking to me. He said, and I quote:

“Here I would like to present an idea which I support through others in Humanistic Judaism might disagree with me. If religious parents feel strongly about giving a religious education to their children, but they cannot support a school system on their own and ask for state aid of the kind given to non-religious schools – then in the conditions of Israel a humanistic Jew should support their request… When thinking about Israel, one should remember that it is another culture, another people, another place.  Separation between church and state may be a very positive and progressive thing in the U. S… Transferred in toto to the different society of Israel, it might turn out to be negative. If there are large masses of people in Israel to whom a synagogue, or a religious school are of supreme importance and if they cannot themselves support these by their own means – then state aid to fulfill this utmost need of its citizens may be as much in order as fulfilling their need for food or shelter. As long as it does not involve any coercion or privilege; which means that if some citizens are in need tomorrow for a humanistic synagogue or school, state aid should be granted to them on an equal basis. The demand therefore is not for separation of religion from state but rather ‘equal treatment of each religion by the State and complete freedom of equality to the non-religious.’ This is the central issue in Israel.”