The Maryland Constitution and the Jew Bill

Turks, Jews, and infidels need not apply.

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In 1822, Kennedy and his allies launched a campaign to "extend to the sect of people professing the Jewish religion, the same rights and privileges enjoyed by Christians." Kennedy’s proposed legislation came to be known as the "Jew Bill." Maryland’s conservative rural newspaper editors and legislators opposed it. When the bill came up for a vote in the upper house of the state legislature in 1823, it was defeated and Kennedy lost his seat in the legislature. Re-elected in 1824, Kennedy, with the help of the Baltimore Jewish community, resumed the fight. In 1825, the Democrats gained a majority in the upper house and had a chance to pass his bill.

In the end, the Maryland Assembly heeded Kennedy’s pleas for justice and arguments that failure to pass his bill would drive Jews out of the state, to the detriment of the local economy. In 1826, the Maryland Assembly finally adopted a bill allowing Jews to hold office. Its key provision stated that:

Every citizen of this state professing the Jewish religion . . . appointed to any office of public trust [shall] make and subscribe a declaration of his belief in a future state of rewards and punishments, in the stead of the declaration now required.

The "Jew Bill" adopted in 1826 did not directly amend or strike the offending clause from the Maryland constitution, where it still stands today. Rather, the bill circumvented it. The Maryland Assembly saw fit only to allow Jews who affirmed their belief in an afterlife to sit as members. Today, while the Maryland constitution still formally limits public office holding to Christians, the clause is never enforced and religious tests are never applied to lawyers or elected officials

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Michael Feldberg

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.