Press Releases

September 13, 2018
Gratz President Cited in Landmark Religious Freedom Case

MELROSE PARK, Pa.—A U.S. District Court judge cited Dr. Paul Finkelman, president of Gratz College, a number of times in a ruling that upholds religious liberty in Pennsylvania.

Christopher C. Conner, chief judge of the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, on Aug. 29 ruled against the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in a case that questioned the constitutionality of a policy limiting who can pray at the beginning of legislative sessions. Chief Judge Conner relied heavily on an expert report from Dr. Finkelman, president of Gratz College, citing him four times by name and his report a few more times in the 36-page opinion.

The House opens most of its daily legislative sessions with a prayer or invocation delivered either by a House member or an invited guest chaplain. It maintains a policy that requires guest chaplains to be members of “a regularly established church or religious organization” and to subscribe to a belief in God or a divine power.

In his ruling, Chief Judge Conner found that the guest chaplain policy violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment by purposefully discriminating against individuals on the basis of religion. The policy denies individuals with nontheistic beliefs the opportunity to deliver an invocation before the House, he wrote in his opinion.

This policy “categorically excludes those who would present an uplifting message of hope, mutual respect, and peace yet—based upon their nontheistic beliefs—would fail to incorporate theistic entreaties to a divine or higher power,” Chief Judge Conner wrote. He also found that, before it changed its policy in early 2017, the House unconstitutionally coerced visitors to standing during the opening prayer and thereby participate in a religious exercise.

Dr. Finkelman, a legal historian who has written extensively on issues of civil and religious rights, generated a comprehensive report detailing the use of chaplains by the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives—and finding no historical evidence of nontheists requesting or being denied the opportunity to pray in either chamber of Congress.

Dr. Finkelman’s report notes that when Congress first created chaplaincies in 1789, it passed a resolution that sought to reflect religious diversity. Neither federal nor state legislative history supports the intentional exclusion of nontheistic guest chaplains but, in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, nontheists likely did not let their beliefs become public because of the threat of imprisonment or “severe physical punishment.”

Dr. Finkelman noted that this case “expands religious liberty in Pennsylvania, and hopefully the whole nation, by protecting the spiritual and intellectual beliefs of all Americans.” He also noted the irony of the legislature’s policy.

“Pennsylvania was founded by William Penn, who was jailed in England for his refusal to support the established church and for his public preaching,” Dr. Finkelman said. “He established the Pennsylvania colony as a haven for all people, of all beliefs. He would have been appalled by legislature discriminating against residents of the state because of their beliefs.” 

Even more ironic, Dr. Finkelman said, is Pennsylvania’s Revolution-era history.

“Benjamin Franklin, the most famous citizen of the state, was not a member of any organized church, and was uncertain about the existence of God,” he said. “Before this case, the state legislature would not have allowed Franklin to give an invocation.”

The case was brought by seven nontheist Pennsylvania residents who desire to deliver an opening invocation before the House. The Plaintiffs—joined by groups including Pennsylvania Nonbelievers, Inc., and the Philadelphia Ethical Society—claim that such invocations would not proselytize or disparage any faith. Instead, the prayers would be “positive, uplifting, unifying, and respectful toward all.”

Four of the plaintiffs are ordained clergy, clergy leaders or ministers.

The court granted partial summary judgment, declaratory judgment and permanent injunctive relief to the plaintiffs. Defendants are expected to appeal.

Click here for a copy of the ruling.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018
Gratz Welcomes Two New Members of Our Board of Governors

MELROSE PARK, Pa.—Gratz College has welcomed two prestigious educators as members of its Board of Governors.

In separate meetings earlier this year, Zipora Schorr, Ed.D., and R. Owen Williams, Ph.D., were appointed to the board, which has primary responsibility for oversight of the college. The appointments bring board membership to 25 and expand the board’s professional and geographic diversity.

“It’s exciting to have such accomplished educators join the Gratz Board,” said Dr. Paul Finkelman, president of Gratz College. “Both of our new board members bring years of educational experience and scholarly accomplishment to the board.”


Zipora Schorr, Ed.D.

Schorr, director of education for Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School in Baltimore, Md., earned her Ed.D. in educational leadership from Gratz College. In 2003, Schorr received the prestigious Covenant Foundation Award for Exceptional Jewish Educators, and in 2013 she received the Award for Educational Excellence in the Diaspora from the World Council for Torah Education.

“I first came to Gratz as a student looking for a school that combined my passions: educational leadership and Jewish studies,” Schorr said. “When I was asked to be on the board, I was impressed by the depth of the people I would be working with. I felt like I could help Gratz grow its footprint.”

Williams, who holds a Ph.D. in history from Yale University, is president of the Associated Colleges of the South and makes his home in Atlanta, Ga. He brings substantial experience in both finance and college administration.

Williams has the distinction of being the first non-Jewish member of the Gratz Board of Governors.

“I am not Jewish, but I’m deeply interested in Jewish history and current affairs,” he said. “To be invited to be a member of the Board of Governors is an enormous honor.

The Board of Governors supports as many as 30 members. Individuals are nominated by the college president or existing board members. After a vetting process, members are asked to join the board for three-year terms.

The board, which meets six times per year, selects the president of the college and establishes policies related to governance, course of studies and management of the college's resources and assets. 

The appointments of the new members come as Gratz expands its Jewish learning opportunities and grows its academic repertoire. In 2017, it launched the country’s first online Ph.D. program in Holocaust and Genocide Studies, which attracts students and faculty from around the globe. In early 2018, Gratz launched on online M.A. in Interfaith Leadership.


R. Owen Williams, Ph.D.

Williams said Gratz’s focus on both Jewish history and interfaith dialogue sets it up as an academic leader in areas that are important on a global scale.

“The Jewish story is a central element of the human story, and as a historian, that interests me a great deal. As a human, it interests me even more,” he said. “From my perspective, the idea of a Jewish college for Jewish students is less important than a Jewish college for the purpose of understanding Jewish history. I’m extremely enthusiastic about an integrated understanding of the human story and condition. I think it’s imperative that the Jewish story in all its glory and trial be properly recounted and understood.”

Gratz also continues to operate a Jewish community high school and offer adult Jewish learning courses. Schorr, who has decades of experience in the Jewish day school and leadership communities, called Gratz a “beautiful little secret” with a mission to expand its reach.

“Gratz has some work to do in making itself a more visible presence in the Jewish education world,” she said. “It is a gem that can absolutely grow its footprint. It is a truly unique and valuable place of higher learning that should appeal to a much broader range of interested students, and at the same time attract

“Gratz has some work to do in making itself a more visible presence in the Jewish education world,” she said. “It is a gem that can absolutely grow its footprint. It is a truly unique and valuable place of higher learning that should appeal to a much broader range of interested students.”