Politics & Policy

Rehashing Old Ground

Prop. 54 and the 1960 Census.

Opponents of Proposition 54 paint a doomsday portrait of California under the Racial Privacy Initiative. Without the racial data Prop. 54 would prevent California from collecting, they argue, the Golden State would be plunged back into those benighted days when Bull Connor lumbered through the streets of Birmingham while the Ku Klux Klan ravaged the “negroes” at will.

The debate today over Prop. 54 parallels almost exactly the 1957 debate over what questions to include on the 1960 Census, though that earlier debate focused on religious data. In 1957, the Census Bureau was preparing the questions that would appear on the 1960 Census. For decades, researchers had lobbied the bureau to add a question about religion. Quite understandably, some wanted to understand how religion influenced Americans’ behavior; others wanted to use the data to combat religious discrimination; finally, some leaders in the Catholic Church saw this data as an opportunity to plan for the changing needs of their congregations. And certainly there was no better way to collect this data than the U.S. Census.

Robert Burgess, director of the Census Bureau, had long been interested in having the bureau provide reliable data about the role of religion in American life. In September 1955, the Commerce Department rejected his application to fund a Census of Religious Bodies. The following April he proposed a question on religion for the 1960 Census. When Burgess announced to an interagency committee on the Census in December 1956 that he was considering a question on religion, the committee members reserved judgment.

Outside of the government, however, opinion was more divided. The Catholic magazine America came out strongly in favor of the question. In September 1956 the editors opined, “The Catholic, Protestant and Jewish bodies . . . have the right to the same services that the Census Bureau renders to commercial, industrial, sales and other varied interests in the nation.” Frustrated by the lack of support from other organizations, in December they wrote, “The parent denominations should soon express their open and official desire. The time is running out for inclusion of the religion query in the 1960 enumeration.”

The ACLU initially took a middle position. While they would oppose a mandatory question soliciting beliefs or attitudes, they would not oppose a voluntary question querying behavior. Other groups, however, opposed any religious question. In May 1957, the American Jewish Congress (AJC) announced its opposition. Rabbis and AJC members began a letter campaign to express their concern over the privacy and church-state issues raised by the inclusion of a religious question in the Census. The AJC also lobbied the ACLU to change its position. Federal law, they noted, prohibited the bureau from making a Census question voluntary. On May 27, 1957, the ACLU’s board of directors voted to “oppose any question pertaining to religion or religious affiliation, whether voluntary or compulsory.” In explaining their change of position, the ACLU told Burgess, “The assembling of information about religious belief and association would aid some or all religious bodies, and thus breach the ‘wall of separation’ between church and state.”

Continuing the AJC campaign against a religion question, the organization’s president, Dr. Israel Goldstein, wrote newspapers across the country. He argued that religion was not a proper part of an individual’s relationship with government, and thus any government questions on the subject would invade an individual’s privacy. Within weeks, the Washington Post, the Minneapolis Star, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Indianapolis News, and the Detroit News had all editorialized against a religious question on the Census.

Leo Pfeffer, perhaps the leading church-state scholar of the time, summarized the reasons against a religious question in The Christian Century. To the extent that information regarding Americans is necessary for the proper functioning of government, Pfeffer argued, the Constitution authorizes limited invasion of the right of privacy and empowers the government to compel citizens to reveal such details of their secular life as their age or income. But no necessary or legitimate function of government is furthered by questioning citizens as to their relationship to God. The religion of Americans is sacred. It is none of the government’s business.

Although the San Francisco Chronicle, the Cincinnati Enquirer, and the Dallas News joined America in supporting the question, by October 1957 Burgess worried the breadth and depth of opposition to a religious question would undermine support for the 1960 Census generally. At a bureau staff meeting on October 15, he and his staff agreed not to have a religious question on the Census. In explaining the decision publicly, Burgess cited the reluctance of many people “to answer such a question in the Census.”

These debates are relevant to the current debate over Prop. 54 for at least two reasons. First, the arguments offered on both sides run parallel. Second, the subsequent history of religious discrimination in America may shed light on how Prop. 54 would change California. The arguments for a religious question on the Census, like those against Prop. 54 are as follows: 1) We will better understand the role of religion/race in American life; and 2) this understanding will mean that we are more able to prevent religious/racial discrimination. Juxtaposed with those arguments is the important issue of privacy.

Few would disagree that religion and race both influence American life profoundly, and often in similar ways. Both influence what we eat, wear, and with whom we associate.

The powerful influence of religion and race on American behavior does not, however, justify state or federal government’s querying about these private matters. Private researchers can and do continue to inquire into religion and religious practices, as well as race; they would certainly continue to do so if Californians approve Prop. 54. Bringing the power of government into such a private sphere, however, changes the nature of the inquiry. Private researchers’ inquiries into religion or race impart no implicit morality to answering (or not answering) such questions. When government come knocking, it is implied that one must answer the question. If race and religion have no proper role in a person’s relationship with the state, the state should not be inquiring into them.

The less obvious parallel between the contemporary debate and that of the late 1950s is how racial discrimination today is similar to religious discrimination then. Like its racial cousin, religious discrimination has a long and inglorious history. Racial discrimination today seems to play the same role for a black carpenter or an Asian shopkeeper that religious discrimination did for Jewish steelworkers in the 1950s. It’s there, but it’s more of an irritation than a serious impediment. Moreover, racial discrimination is clearly waning. Only the least educated, most marginalized segments of American society cling to the racism that animates discrimination.

If our experience with religious discrimination is any guide then, the terrifying visions of a return to widespread racial discrimination are quite overblown. Even without religious Census data, religious discrimination has all but disappeared. We can only hope that under Prop. 54, racial discrimination will do the same.

M. Royce Van Tassell coordinated the committee that drafted Proposition 54, which will appear next Tuesday on the California ballot. He is now the executive director of Education Excellence Utah, a Salt Lake City think tank promoting parental choice in education.


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