Is religious freedom of greater importance than the constitutional right of equality?
Arizona’s state law SB 1062, which has passed through the legislature and awaits gubernatorial support or veto, argues, ‘Yes’. I suggest, ‘no’, and I do so on religious grounds.
The argument for Arizona law SB 1062 is the protection of the ‘free-exercise-of-religion’. The new statute mandates that as a business owner, I should not have to serve people in my business, if I disagree with their actions on religious grounds. That is, the religious conviction of the business owner would trump the equal treatment of his or her customers. For example, a gay couple at a hotel could be turned away if the hotel owner objects to homosexuality on religious grounds. This is the definition of discrimination.
In this country, for a long time, even to this day – but no longer under the protection of law, we discriminated on the basis of race. This, of course, was a violation of a cornerstone of our constitution; equality. Today, under the guise of religious rights, the Arizona legislature has passed a law allowing businesses to refuse to serve individuals in the public because of religious differences.
We don’t yet know if Arizona Governor Jan Brewer will sign it into law. I dare say, she seems capable of any crazy thing. Remember when she wagged her finger inches from our president’s face? Even if she does sign it, it’s hard for me to imagine that it would stand the test of constitutionality in the long-run.
I’m not a constitutional lawyer, but I fail to see how this an issue of religious freedoms being impinged. If your religion prevents you from interacting with the public with fairness and equality, than change your business. There is no government mandate that you work in a public forum. Regardless of the constitutional point, religious assertion into the public square is fundamentally bad for religion, and ergo, bad for the public.
The Talmud suggests that true freedom of religion begins with freedom from religion:
At the moment the Israelites were about to receive the Ten Commandments, the Torah records that they stood at the foot of the mountain. The literal translation is “And they stood under the mountain.”(Ex. 19:17). If the people stood under the mountain, with God literally lording it over them – than acceptance of the Torah was hardly a choice.
Rabbi Aha, the son of Jacob, observed: This furnishes a strong protest against the Torah. [ That observance of the Torah is through coercion!!!]
Said Raba, Yet even so, they re-accepted it in the days of Ahasuerus, for it is written, “[the Jews] confirmed, and took upon them [etc.]” (Esther 9:27). -Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 88a
Raba’s point is that it cannot stand that religion, i.e. observance of the commandments, is a response to a Godly threat. It is untenable for the sages to imagine that God forces our observance and faith. Indeed the entire enterprise of morality is dependent on the freedom to choose otherwise. Much better to see the observance from a less obvious, obscure verse from one of the last of the books of Hebrew scripture.
The rabbis of Babylonia circa 500 CE understood what religious fundamentalists in Arizona today have yet to learn: Faith does not come from coercion or imposition of faith is granted a a wide berth. I believe this to be just as true in Israel (see my blog on this issue as it relates to the Israeli rabbinate) as it is in Arizona. If you understand your religion to mean not eating pork, or lighting candles 18 min before sundown on Friday evenings, or not marrying someone you love because they are of the same sex as you, or any other wacky thing, do or don’t do it. Amen. The need for the state law to bless it is bizarre.
Faith’s real power, our sages understood, comes from the freedom of the individual’s choice of action, not by the power of the state, not even by the power of God: God can control anything,with the single exception of faith in heavens themselves. Hakol B’yadei Shamayim – Hutz mi’yirat Shamamyim.
The more I read and learn about what has been happening in Russia, the more I am afraid for its citizens. The attention that the fairly recently implemented “anti-gay propaganda” law is getting is certainly high on the list of reasons to be concerned. What begins as fines quickly becomes imprisonment. There is already more than enough evidence that creating an environment of state-sponsored discrimination against a section of the population based on an essential part of their being leads to violence against those individuals. There are numerous accounts of LGBT Russians being attacked by vigilantes and thugs.
We should all be concerned by these stories. As a Jew, and as a lesbian, I cannot help but think about Germany in the 1930s. We teach that history precisely so that we might better recognize the early signs of state-sponsored prejudice that can quickly escalate into something more. I don’t think I’m being reactionary. I’m truly and deeply concerned.
What does this mean for the Sochi Olympics, and beyond the events of the Olympics themselves. I admit, I find myself at a gut level drawn to the idea of boycott – of simply not watching. But I’m not convinced that this is an effective or meaningful response at this stage. I would have supported the International Olympics Committee if they had made a decision to relocate or cancel the games at an earlier juncture, and I also recognize the logistical, legal, and political complexities of making such a decision. I looked back in history to see how this debate played out at the time of the 1936 Olympic games in Germany. Initially, there was a question of boycotting the games that was perhaps most intensively considered in the USA. According to a review of those events provided by the Holocaust Encyclopedia hosted by the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.:
Responding to reports of the persecution of Jewish athletes in 1933, Avery Brundage, president of the American Olympic Committee (AOC), stated: “The very foundation of the modern Olympic revival will be undermined if individual countries are allowed to restrict participation by reason of class, creed, or race.”
However, Brundage then went on to assert that his investigation led him to believe that German Jewish athletes (and other Jewish athletes) would not be discriminated against at the games. He argued “…that politics had no place in sport. He fought to send a US team to the 1936 Olympics, claiming: “The Olympic Games belong to the athletes and not to the politicians.” He wrote in the AOC’s pamphlet “Fair Play for American Athletes” that American athletes should not become involved in the present “Jew-Nazi altercation.” As the Olympics controversy heated up in 1935, Brundage alleged the existence of a “Jewish-Communist conspiracy” to keep the United States out of the Games.”
With the benefit of hindsight, would we argue today that a different decision should have been made? I struggle with the answer. I know that one of the things that I most remember from what I have previously learned about the events of that time is the victory of Jesse Owens, winning four gold medals, highlighting the absurdity of Hitler’s belief in the supremacy of the “Aryan race.” Will we loudly celebrate every success of a lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender athlete at the Sochi Games?
I hear the perspective that it is the presence of the games in Russia that is heightening media attention on the realities in that country. Attention which, I believe, these horrific laws and actions would most likely not receive to the same degree were it not for the games. I also struggle with the question of what sponsors should be doing. I would like nothing more than to learn that Russia finds itself with a huge bill at the end of these games because international corporate sponsors like Coca Cola were not propping up the games. But I’m not sure how or if this would help any of the citizens of Russia whose lives are being affected by Russian government policies. Is a pro-LGBT Coca Cola ad during the NFL Super Bowl enough to make a different kind of statement?
Ultimately, while I struggle with the question of the Olympic games in Sochi, I am much more certain about what needs to happen after Sochi. The media attention must not go away. The corporate sponsors must not stop demonstrating their explicit support for a diverse and inclusive society. And when, (and I’m sorry that I believe it is more of a when than an if) we hear that LGBT Russians are seeking asylum from prosecution and fear of death in their native land, we must ensure that they have a safe place to go and are welcomed here and in all countries who have declared their support and concern for LGBT lives in Russia while supporting the Sochi games.