Maryland’s “Jew Bill”
Today we’re using our Voter Education blog to dive back into history and to talk about the Jew Bill in Maryland. This bill was a big turning point for Jewish communities in Maryland and Baltimore and changed the trajectory of Jewish involvement and engagement with public life. This bill changed the way that Jewish Marylanders could participate in government, and therefore advocate for themselves and their communities. To learn more about the Jew Bill, we need to start with the historical context of the time, and why it was so important to get it passed in the Maryland government.
Until the late 1700s, there weren’t many Jewish families in Maryland. The earliest Jewish immigration to the US in the colonial era was mainly Sephardic Jews or Jewish people from Spanish and Portuguese descent. This included Sephardic Dutch Jews, who settled in Newport and built Touro Synagogue, the oldest surviving synagogue building in the US, as well as those who moved to South Carolina, home of the second oldest synagogue, Beth Elohim. These communities had more tolerance for non-Christians, and so Jewish people were better able to establish themselves. However, some Jewish people did move to Baltimore and Maryland, though they faced particular trouble while trying to create a community.
In 1649, in an attempt to create more religious tolerance, the assembly of the Maryland colony passed the Act Concerning Religion or the Toleration Act. This act provided freedom of religion to Christians who believed in the Trinity, including the Catholic and Protestant members of the community, especially as they exchanged power over the colony. However, those who were non-Christians or did not believe in the divinity of the Trinity could be punished by execution or the seizure of their lands. Despite that this law preceded other laws guaranteeing religious freedom, Jewish people were risking their lives even practicing their religion, so it’s not a surprise that Maryland was not an attractive place to settle down, as a non-Christian.
The shadow of this law continued through the 1700s, to the ratification of the Maryland State Constitution in 1776. In it, the constitution states, “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.” Though Jewish people were no longer legally allowed to be executed for their beliefs, they could not serve in municipal or state office, join the military, or practice law. This discrimination made it less appealing for the Jewish community to live in Maryland, and so they decided to act. In 1779, Solomon Etting, who was a well-known Jewish Baltimorean, petitioned the state to amend the constitution, a bill that inspired the eventual “Jew Bill”. The Jewish community took up the cause, petitioning the legislature for the bill’s passage and writing to editors in local and national newspapers.
As this issue grew, state delegate Thomas Kennedy took up the cause, impassioned in his belief in religious freedom, despite never having met someone Jewish before. He introduced “An Act for the relief of the Jews of Maryland” which became known as the “Jew Bill.” Unfortunately, the Federalist Party, a strongly anti-immigrant party, opposed the bill enough to have it fail year after year. However, Kennedy bravely continued to fight for the passage of the bill, despite the negative effect it had on his career. Eventually, he was defeated for re-election in 1823, but he returned to office in 1825, running as an independent. This time, he was able to secure enough votes to pass the Jew Bill in 1826.
This made a huge difference for the Jewish community in Maryland, allowing them to finally advocate fully in government. As we know from the history of the Lloyd Street synagogue, more Jewish people were immigrating from German-speaking countries. Having protections such as this law might have been one reason why Nidche Yisrael settled on Lloyd Street, creating Baltimore Hebrew Congregation and the start of our Museum’s story. The effects of this bill are easy to see today, as we have multiple elected officials who identify as Jewish.
Of course, the Bill wasn’t perfect, as it only extended rights to Jews. Other religious minorities did not see legislative protection until 1867 when all religious requirements were taken out of the constitution. However, there is still work to be done to ensure all freedoms for people in our country. Educating yourself about current laws and elections, as well as learning about the past, are all important as your role as a citizen of our country. Tune in next Friday for another opportunity to further your Voter Education!