Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
The concept of religious freedom, guaranteed by the First Amendment, has allowed Jews to practice their religion in relative safety and security for hundreds of years in America. Yet recent interpretation of First Amendment rights may also come to represent a threat to American Jewry.
In Indiana, a controversial “Religious Freedom” bill was recently signed into law by Gov. Mike Pence. The bill is an amended version of earlier legislation, with added language aimed at protecting citizens from discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Opponents (including myself) think that the bill’s very existence opens the door to future cases of legally protected discrimination.
Similar bills are in the legislative process in other states. Proponents argue that they are merely echoing the sentiments of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. That act, signed into law by President Bill Clinton in the 1990s, was drafted in the context of Native Americans who were in danger of losing their jobs based on their use of peyote in religious ceremonies. It was meant to restrict the government’s ability to infringe on individual practices. With Passover now in our rearview mirror, we can see a parallel. Who among us did not have our first sip of wine at a Seder … long before we turned 21?
Today, however, that context has changed. States enacting “religious freedom” legislation are not protecting individuals’ abilities to practice their own religion. Rather, they are extending the moral values of a segment of society and attempting to apply them to all. Specifically, these laws clearly seek to allow businesses to claim religious exemption from equal opportunity laws and regulations. The new laws are broad in context and, experts argue, could be used to allow businesses to refuse services to people whose lifestyles come into conflict with religious beliefs. Currently, the target “disagreeable” audience happens to be the gay and lesbian community, but who is next?
To be clear, this piece is not an endorsement (or a criticism) of gay marriage. That subject just happens to be the current arena for a larger battle over Americans’ rights to be free from discrimination. As American Jews, we should be able to see past the specific issue at hand and identify the slippery slope that lies beyond.
In his famous speech/poem “First they Came…,” Martin Niemöller highlighted this danger. In case you need a refresher:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
As Jews, we have an obligation to heed the lessons of history. If an organization is allowed to refuse service to individuals based on religious objections to their sexual orientation, what comes next? Can a business refuse to serve anyonewith whom they hold religious disagreement? That doesn’t end well for us.
During my graduate studies at the University of Rhode Island, I took a class that focused entirely on the history, construct, benefits and failures of democracy as a system of government. If it’s been awhile since your last civics class, I’ll provide a quick summary. The United States is not a pure democracy in the traditional sense of the term. That fact is something that we Jews, as a minority group, should be profoundly thankful for. In a pure democracy, rules are constructed to benefit the majority, with little consideration for the desires of the minority. Thankfully, our American Republic provides explicit protections for minority rights.
Religiousfreedom has become such a loaded term, that we often forget what it really guarantees. According to the First Amendment of the Constitution, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
The accepted interpretation of these two clauses is that the government cannot favor one religion over another, nor prohibit citizens from believing in any particular faith.
Proponents of religious freedom bills have pointed to the First Amendment to justify their aims. It has been argued by some religious groups that individual citizens, and the businesses they own, should be protected by the Constitution if they decline to provide services to a particular group based on religious differences ordisagreements. Yetthe Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that while laws “cannot interfere with mere religious belief and opinions, they may with practices.” Put in context, polygamy, once considered legal by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was upheld as illegal by the laws of the United States. The logical extension to our current situation, therefore, suggests that discrimination cannot be legalized based on a religious pretext.
Our Founding Fathers believed in a United States free from religious discrimination or prejudice. In the Treaty of Tripoli, President John Adams stated quite clearly that, “the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion.” For dozens of non-Christian minorities, including Jews, this set the stage for their protection and minority rights in the Republic. While we may feel relatively secure in our status as AmericanJews, we should be wary of what the future may hold if we allow religious intolerance to extend into public discourse and, ultimately, to law. Today, we see another group under attack. Regardless of our personal feelings toward the particular cause, we should recognize the injustice for what it is and rally against it, lest there be no one left to speak for us.
PETE ZUBOF is a native of Richmond, Virginia. He completed his undergraduate studies at the University of Maryland and has a master’s degree from the University of Rhode Island. He’s a pilot in the United States Navy and currently on the staff of the Naval War College. Pete is also the Jewish lay-leader for Naval Station Newport. Pete blogs regularly for 401j. He resides in Jamestown with his wife, Morgan, their son, Logan and dog Cider.