Court ruling on conversion funding could shatter status quo on religion-state issues.
By DAN IZENBERG
In a decision that could lead to dramatic changes in the status quo on religion-state issues, the High Court of Justice on Tuesday ordered the government to stop discriminating against Reform and Conservative conversion institutes in favor of Orthodox ones with regard to funding.
Until now, non-Orthodox conversion programs have not been eligible for funding, which is provided by the Immigration Absorption Ministry to Orthodox schools.
The decision was handed down unanimously by the panel, comprising Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch, and justices Miriam Na'or and Edna Arbel.
Rabbi Gilad Kariv, director-general of the Reform Movement, said the decision was "very important and constituted one more step in the process of ending the Orthodox monopoly in Israel."
He added that the ruling "was the harbinger of a series of High Court decisions to come which will eventually lead to a strategic agreement between the state and the Reform and Conservative movements regarding their status in Israel."
But Kariv cautioned that the process would still take many years.
Attorney Einat Horowitz, who represented the petitioner, the Movement for Progressive Judaism in Israel, told The Jerusalem Post afterward that the court's decision could influence the outcome of other current and future legal actions brought by the Reform Movement.
These included calling on the government to pay salaries for Reform rabbis and to allow non-Orthodox converts to use public ritual baths to immerse themselves as part of the conversion process, she added.
Although the High Court had ruled in favor of freedom of religion and pluralism regarding the Reform and Conservative movements in the past, this was the first time it had dealt directly with a question of equality in funding for religious services, Horowitz said.
In 2005, the Reform Movement petitioned the High Court against the government's decision to provide money for educational institutions preparing non-Jews for conversion.
The funding was provided on condition that the studies prepared the students for conversion in an Orthodox procedure, either by the special conversion courts of the National Conversion Authority or by the district rabbinical courts.
The Reform and Conservative movements, which prepare students for conversion by their own courts in Israel, were automatically excluded from the funding.
In defending its policy, the state had to convince the court that there were relevant reasons for distinguishing between Orthodox and Reform and Conservative conversions.
The state maintained that the difference was in the broad acceptance granted to Orthodox converts by Israeli society and the legal status that Orthodox conversion provided.
In accepting the petition, Beinisch, who wrote the decision, examined the purpose of the grant as explained by the Immigration Absorption Ministry in its budget request.
The ministry wrote that preparation for conversion was meant "to allow the entire population of immigrants who are not Jewish according to Halacha but immigrated to Israel in accordance with the Law of Return to be fully spiritually and culturally absorbed into the Jewish people and the State of Israel. The studies are aimed at providing an answer to the needs of the immigrant and his desire to be part of the Jewish people."
Beinisch wrote that the text stressed the acceptance of the convert into society and not the legal status he obtained from his conversion. She said that the conversion classes of the non-Orthodox movements also provided that service.
"The declared intention of these conversion institutions is to integrate the new immigrants who want it, into the ranks of the Jewish people, while learning and becoming familiar with the Jewish religion, its principles and customs, while taking an active part in the life of the Jewish community," Beinisch wrote, quoting from the Reform Movement petition.
In addition, she continued, the exclusion of the Reform and Conservative movements violated fundamental principles of the democratic system, that is, freedom of speech and pluralism.
Even assuming that there were advantages to Orthodox conversion with regard to social acceptance and legal status, "the state must distinguish between the actual activity [i.e. the studies for conversion to Judaism] and other considerations, extraneous to the activity, whose relevance in establishing funding criteria is questionable and cannot justify the distinction the state wishes to create by giving preferential treatment to one religious stream over another."
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