But now, lay leaders in Philadelphia are leading the charge for the influential national organization, which has long advocated for strict church-state separation, to reverse course.
The argument, according to David Pudlin, a Center City attorney who sits on the ADL's regional executive committee and national board, is that failing to provide a viable alternative consigns many inner-city children to an inferior education in a broken public-school system.
"We feel that the denial of a quality education to a segment of our society is a violation of the Equal Protection Clause," said Pudlin, adding that he views school choice as an issue of civil rights.
He also argued that a voucher program, which would provide public funds to families to go to private schools, can be implemented in a manner that wouldn't violate the ban on government support of religion.
In February, the local executive committee, which is made up entirely of lay leaders, voted 13-4 in favor of adopting a resolution that overturns the ADL's long-held position and "affirms its support for School Choice Programs as enhancing parents' rights to direct the upbringing of their children."
But getting the national ADL to follow suit won't be easy, say knowledgeable insiders; it would constitute a sea change in policy for one of the nation's most visible Jewish groups.
A few weeks after the initial vote, the ADL's national Religious Freedom Task Force handily rejected the resolution.
But that wasn't the end of it. The issue was referred to the 25-plus boards across the country, said regional ADL director Barry Morrison.
"It is still being reviewed and discussed," said Morrison. Any policy change, he said, "would represent a clear break from a long-standing practice."
The matter is expected to come up for debate and a vote at the June 13 national executive committee meeting in New York, said officials.