Is it legal for a publicly funded school to operate in the language of a specific religion -- Hebrew or Arabic -- and not stray over church-state boundaries?
New York State has approved the application for the Hebrew Language Academy Charter School. It's set to open this fall in Brooklyn to teach the Hebrew language "and aspects of Jewish culture" but not Judaism itself. Sponsors say they want to "instill Jewish identity without the private expense of Jewish day schools," according to the Jewish Daily Forward. (Full story here).
Of course, Jewish Day schools do teach religion along with the secular curriculum so this proposal is controversial within the Jewish community. There could be blowback to the new group of 15 unnamed millionaire philanthropists who want to spread this concept nationwide. The Forward writes:
Critics have variously argued that Hebrew language charter schools impermissibly erode church-state boundaries, potentially balkanize Jews from the rest of society, and create a false dichotomy between Jewish religion and culture."
The Hebrew proposal also comes two years after a similar request for an Arabic-focus public (not charter) school was nearly derailed in 2007 under protests that it would foster Islamic religion and, possibly radical politics. The Khalil Gibran International Academy, also in Brooklyn, opened last year.
By law, both schools must take all comers and be "devoid of religious content."
Is that possible? Biblical Hebrew is the language of the Torah but modern Hebrew is the language of Israel. Likewise, Classical Arabic is the language of the never-translated Quran but modern Arabic is the language of a minority of Muslims worldwide.
Are these schools teaching the religious language and the modern languages? The ideal culture of the Torah and Quran's teachings, or the modern political culture of Israel and Saudi Arabia? Can they do both? And if they do, how close to the church-state line are they getting with public funds? Could Catholic schools get public funds if they created a focus on Latin language and Catholic culture -- minus Catholic religion?
What is a "culture" if it's not a language put to use in a distinctive way, including a distinctive faith?