Friday, April 3, 2015

Passover Thoughts -- Indiana and Elsewhere

Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. famously said that “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.” As Jews, we can take pride in the fact that it is our story of our liberation from Egypt which has, more than any other, inspired the human quest to make the world a more just place.

In the last week or so, this country has seen what I believe to be a decisive turn in the struggle for equal rights for gay and lesbian Americans. As I write this, the Indiana legislature is revising its recently passed “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” to eliminate the possibility that the law will be used to allow businesses to discriminate against gays and lesbians. The Georgia legislature is holding back on a similar bill -- after a number of Conservative rabbis were among the religious leaders testifying against it. The Arkansas legislature is revising its bill after Gov. Asa Hutchinson threatened to veto it, spurred on, he said, by a request from his own son.

I recognize that within the Conservative movement, within our congregation and in our society as a whole there is a spectrum of beliefs regarding the issue of same-sex marriage. My own position on the issue in terms of halacha is that I would if asked be willing to officiate at a same-sex ceremony between two Jews, but it is not kiddushin, consecrated Jewish marriage. This position has the “virtue” of seeming too restrictive to most gays and lesbians while at the same time seeming radically permissive to those on the more traditional end of the Conservative spectrum.

It should also be noted that federal and state laws carve out a great deal of autonomy for religious organizations to handle these issues in accordance with their own beliefs. No clergy person can be forced to officiate at a marriage he/she thinks is not religiously acceptable. No congregation can be forced to accept any person as a member or even to comply with antidiscrimination laws as long as the religious body asserts that its actions are doctrinally required. For example, a religious group that feels homosexuality is a sin is free to discriminate against gays and lesbians in hiring clergy, religious school teachers, and even church secretaries or janitors if it asserts that this is what their religion requires. This is unlikely to change any time soon, nor should it.

But a pizzeria, a bakery or a florist shop is not a church. As Charles M. Blow wrote Wednesday in the New York Times: “when you enter the sphere of commerce in America — regardless of your “deeply held religious beliefs” — you have entered a nondiscriminatory zone in which your personal beliefs are checked at the register, and each customer is treated equally.
This is not to say that a gay couple on the eve of commitment should want to patronize a bigoted baker for a wedding cake, but rather that the refusal to render services based on that bigotry is untenable.”

My paternal grandfather was one of six children but only five of them lived long enough to migrate from Belarus to the United States. According to family legend, one brother died when he fell ill during the week before Easter and the Christian doctor in their town, acting from his own “deeply held religious beliefs”, refused to treat Jews that week. So I am not predisposed to accept “deeply held religious beliefs” as a reason to discriminate against other people in commerce or the public square.
This Pesach, as we celebrate and give thanks to God for our freedom, let us commit once again to helping to “bend the arc” towards greater justice for all.