Defender of Faith

The death of Queen Elizabeth II and the ascension of King Charles III in the United Kingdom has reminded us that democracies need not adhere to the strict separation of church and state that we are accustomed to here in America. The British monarch, in addition to hereditary titles, is also styled the “Defender of the Faith” meaning that he is the head of the Church of England. As prince, Charles caused a bit of a flap when he suggested that he would like to be the “Defender of Faith”, a more universal and ecumenical notion, but in his proclamation as king the traditional “the” remained in place.

Charles was trying to balance the challenge of remaining faithful to tradition while honoring the many religions in his realm. How can he truly be a sovereign to all when he is called upon to be the supreme governor of one particular faith? While his dilemma may seem to be a decidedly British one, we in America may have to soon address similar challenges as our highest court seeks to break down some of the traditional barriers between religion and state.

As I have noted elsewhere, recent Supreme Court rulings have changed the way government approaches faith. States must support religious schools in certain situations, and they must allow prayer in others. As a religious minority, it is hard not to see these moves as a privileging of Christianity in America. Schools must make way for a football coach to pray on the 50-yard line, but there is nothing to stop a school from scheduling state-mandated testing on the holiest day of the Jewish year.

Two cases in Jewish education add even more complication to the picture. This week the Supreme Court signaled it most likely will take up the case of an LGBTQ club at Yeshiva University (YU). The school argues that it can ban the group as a religious organization while the New York Supreme Court ruled that it was chartered as a non-religious institution and therefore must conform to New York City’s Human Rights Law.

Also this week the State of New York passed new guidelines to determine whether or not a private school provides an education which is “substantially equivalent” to a public school. Neither side seems fully satisfied with the outcome in this long-running battle. The New York Times just published a long investigation of Hasidic schools, finding that many of these institutions, funded with billions of taxpayer dollars, provide substandard education for their children.

Leaving aside the question of whether Hasidic schools are good at what they set out to do (teach Talmud and religious studies), these two cases raise problems with the new direction of religion and state in America. If the Supreme Court is going to compel government to support religious education, what are the obligations of the religious institutions? Put bluntly: if the state foots the bill can it demand religion accept certain standards, in these cases support for the LGBTQ community and the teaching of secular studies?

I suspect that this Supreme Court will side with the university in the YU case, which would mean that it can receive government funding without having to accept government conditions. The result will be a new day for the relationship between religion and state. No longer will these two great pillars be seen as equals. Instead, the state will have to bow to the will of religion. Perhaps America will need a new motto to replace “the separation of church and state”. “Defender of Faith” is available.

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