Victory for Reform movement as court rules state must fund all conversions

The principle of equality obliges the state to give financial support to private conversion programs belonging to non-Orthodox as well as Orthodox groups, the High Court of Justice ruled in a landmark decision yesterday.

The ruling was issued in response to a petition by the Reform movement, which until now has received state funding only for nonreligious purposes, such as educational activities or helping new immigrants, according to Einat Hurvitz, the movement’s lawyer. Yesterday’s decision grants it funding for a clearly religious activity.

The ruling is also expected to play into the outcome of another case now pending before the court: The Reform movement’s 2005 petition demanding that the government finance the salary of a Reform rabbi in Gezer, just as it finances the salaries of Orthodox municipal rabbis.

In the current petition, also filed in 2005, the Reform movement argued that the Immigrant Absorption Ministry’s criteria as to which private conversion programs to fund discriminated against non-Orthodox movements. The ministry funds Orthodox programs, which prepare people for conversion through the state’s rabbinical courts, but not non-Orthodox programs. The Reform movement argued that all private conversion programs should be funded equally.

The court, in a panel headed by Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch, agreed. The state’s commitment to pluralism cannot be merely passive, Beinisch wrote, it must be active. This means that it must fund programs run by non-Orthodox movements if it funds similar programs by Orthodox groups.

The state had argued that there was a significant difference between the programs, making the difference in funding a nondiscriminatory one – namely, the fact that the state currently recognizes Orthodox conversions performed in Israel for legal purposes, but not non-Orthodox conversions performed in Israel. Orthodox programs typically prepare people for Orthodox, i.e. state-recognized, conversion, but non-Orthodox programs typically do not, so the state has reason for funding the former but not the latter.

However, Beinisch said the question of what legal significance a conversion has for the individual is not in itself sufficient to justify discriminating between groups that are running similar programs that share a common goal – namely, enabling Israeli citizens and residents to integrate spiritually and culturally into Israeli society.

The moment an individual chooses one program rather than another, “in accordance with his religious worldview,” the state “is obligated by the principle of freedom of religion and pluralism” to enable both programs to exist, including by giving financial support to one movement’s programs if it sees fit to support those of another, she wrote.

Meanwhile, in an unrelated conversion case, the court yesterday gave the state 90 days to explain why the Rabbinical Court of Appeals annulled conversions performed by the special rabbinical court headed by Rabbi Haim Druckman.


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