The Maryland Constitution and the Jew Bill

Turks, Jews, and infidels need not apply.

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In 1776, the very year that the Declaration of Independence proclaimed that “all men are created equal,” the people of Maryland adopted a constitution that set the standard for holding state office:

No other test or qualification ought to be required on admission to any office of trust or profit than such oath of support and fidelity to the State . . . and a declaration of belief in the Christian religion.
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Lord Baltimore founded Maryland to provide a haven for England’s persecuted Catholics. Ironically, by the time of the Revolution, Catholics had become a small and unpopular minority in Maryland. Most of Maryland’s Catholics saw the provision to allow all Christians to hold public office as a guarantee of their equality.

With the adoption of the federal Bill of Rights in 1787, which ensured freedom of religion to all American citizens, such restrictions on the holding of public office in Maryland–including military service and the practice of law–became blatantly unconstitutional. At least it seemed that way to Jewish leaders Solomon Etting and Jacob Cohen of Baltimore, who along with other petitioners, appealed to the Maryland Assembly in 1797 on Sketch of proceedings in the legislature of Maryland, December session, 1818, on what is commonly called the Jew bill.behalf of “a sect of people called Jews” who “are deprived of invaluable rights of citizenship” and who want to be “placed on the same footing as other good citizens.”

Etting had fought in the Revolution and been active in public life in Pennsylvania before moving to Baltimore. An energetic individual who holds the distinction of being the first American-born shochet (ritual slaughterer), Etting served as a director of the first American railroad company, the Baltimore and Ohio. Cohen was a banker and Jewish communal leader. Both men were Jeffersonian Democrats and had influential friends in the legislature.

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Michael Feldberg, Ph.D. is executive director of the George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom. From 1991 to 2004, he served as executive director of the American Jewish Historical Society, the nation's oldest ethnic historical organization, and from 2004 to 2008 was its director of research.

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