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Israeli Court Rules on Tombstones

July 8, 1999

JERUSALEM (AP) _ In what supporters call a victory for religious freedom, Israelis now have a choice between religious and secular calendars for date inscriptions on their tombstones.

Israel’s Supreme Court ruled in favor of a petition from the family of Rosa Greital, who died in 1986 and was buried in a cemetery in Rishon Lezion, a city south of Tel Aviv.

The family requested that Western dates be inscribed on her tombstone, but the ultra-Orthodox burial societies that oversee almost all Israeli cemeteries permitted only the Jewish dates. The Jewish calendar dates back more than 5,000 years and uses a Hebrew lettering system for numbers.

The Supreme Court, in a 2-1 decision, ruled Tuesday that the burial societies could not require families to abide by their rigid religious rules.

``If, in this non-theocratic state, the court fails to set the limits of religious freedom, we will be totally neglecting the feelings of the population,″ Chief Justice Aharon Barak wrote in the majority decision.

Lobbyists for religious freedom in Israel said the decision to allow secular dates marked a great step forward in limiting the powers of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel.

The Israel Religious Action Center, which represents the liberal movement of Reform Judaism, helped the family take the case to the Supreme Court.

Uri Regev, head of the Religious Action Center, said he hoped the decision meant the Supreme Court would continue to rule against religious coercion.

``For decades, these institutions have used their monopoly on religious matters to tell Jews how they must live and die,″ Regev said in a statement.

The Supreme Court has frequently ruled in favor of religious freedom. But religious political parties, which occupy more than one-fifth of the seats in parliament, have fought to maintain their control of all matters concerning conversion to Judaism, marriage, divorce and burial.

Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who was sworn in Tuesday, has pledged to prevent the minority religious community from imposing its strict traditions on Israel’s secular population.

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