“Religious Freedom” may Bode Poorly for Jews

By: Pete Zubof

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 the governor.    Arkansas may be following suit, and similar bills are being considered in several other states.  Proponents of the Indiana bill and others like it point to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.  That law, 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 upon us, we can see a parallel.  Who among us did not have our first sip of wine at the 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 in conflict with religious beliefs.  Currently, the target “disagreeable” audience happens to be the gay and lesbian community, but who is next?

You certainly do not have to be an advocate for, or even a proponent of gay marriage to understand the slippery slope that is created by such legislation.  In his famous speech/poem First they Came…, Martin Niemӧller 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 anyone with whom they hold religious disagreement?  That doesn’t end well for us.

In the military, it would not be unfair to say I exist in a conservative world.  Although I consider myself a moderate, I am probably very politically conservative to many of you reading this piece.  Yet I don’t consider this to be a partisan matter.  This is about what is right and what is wrong.  I hope that you can all take a step back from your personal beliefs on issues of sexual orientation and consider the greater consequences to our country if discrimination, in any guise, is allowed free reign.

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