Religious Liberty from a Reform Judaism Perspective

by Rabbi Eugene H. Levy. Rabbi Levy retired in 2011 from long service to Temple B’nai Israel in West Little Rock, but has definitely not retired from social justice activism. He is a co-founder of the Arkansas Interfaith Alliance.

The past few years I have become very leery of the titles that our Arkansas State Legislature often attaches to bills up for consideration and vote. Very often these titles are misleading and obfuscate the motivations and ramifications of the very bills themselves. For example, the term “non-discrimination” almost always implies that there is some discrimination implicit or explicit, and the terms “freedom” and “liberty” often are red flags that someone’s liberty and freedom are about to be in peril.

With this hypothesis, nothing has been more evident, at least to me, than the uses and misuses of the term “religious liberty.” I hope to lay this out for you and then to follow up with what I think Reform Judaism has to say about this topic.

When confronted with a person or a bill that focuses its message on the terms “religious freedoms” or “religious liberty,” we need to quickly move to that person’s or to that bill’s motivation for using those terms. Is it literally for one’s own religious liberty and freedom, or is it for the religious freedom to discriminate against another’s freedom?

Let me try to clarify. I, for one, look at “religious liberty” as the freedom of a person or group to have and to hold their own specific and meaningful religious beliefs, speech, and actions – and the right to act on them or even change them at will.

In the United States, for the most part, individuals and groups are free to engage in religious activities – and are also free not to—without the coercion of government or other religious groups. In this country, we are not punished for our thoughts or belief, nor for our actions so long as they comport with the law.

However, there seems to be a rapidly emerging and growing new meaning of the terms “religious liberty and freedom,” and that is to use that term as a cover for the freedom to discriminate against others for just about any conceivable reason. We have the much over-used example of the shop owner using religious freedom to say that his religion would not allow him to sell flowers or a wedding cake for a gay couple.

Under the guise of religious liberty, certain states have enacted laws that either overtly or more subtly allow one group of people to apply their religious beliefs to deny service to, hate, oppress or otherwise discriminate against the human rights of others.

Such seems to be the case with RFRA, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Its original reason for being was quite different that the most recent spate of states trying to use that very bill title to cover for ways to continue to discriminate specifically against the rights of the LGBT community.

In February and March 2016, a number of states rushed to pass these bills which, instead of protecting the rights of a minority religion and native American practice as was the intent of RFRA in 1993, are a way of preserving discrimination under the guise of promoting religious liberty.

Just as the so-called “Moral Majority” of the 1980’s hijacked the words “moral,” “family,” “flag,” and “life,” and added the word pro- to them and then defined these terms so that the “pro” fit their philosophy, so it seems to me that many fundamentalist-oriented legislators, both state-based and nationally, have now hijacked the term “religious liberty” to justify discrimination.

While we are often quick to quote the great Jewish sage Hillel as well as Jesus in what is often referred to as The Golden Rule, it seems to me that these religious liberty laws are designed to do just the opposite: they justify treating others as we would not wish to be treated ourselves.

For the past 43 years, since my rabbinic ordination in 1972, I have been a member of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), which is the organization of America’s Reform Rabbis. We have been known to take courageous and leading positions in the arena of social reform and social justice. We went on record in support of the LGBT community as early as 1977 and have since broadened our support to include full equality.

In taking stands such as these and in supporting these stands with resolutions, Reform Rabbis and Reform Judaism have also vigorously supported and defended American religious liberty. The CCAR proudly supported the first RFRA (Religious Freedom Restoration Act) when it passed in the early 1990’s. We felt at that time that the search for religious liberty by a legitimately discriminated-against minority was real, and we were active in our support of their rights.

Recently, however, it was a much different story. The CCAR recognized in 2015 that when the Indiana and Arkansas Legislatures were in the process of adopting their state equivalents of RFRA, legislators were motivated by an animus against the LGBT community. That is, the rabbis in the Reform Movement of Judaism recognized that the term “religious liberty” was being misused to justify discrimination against the LGBT community and their families. It was plain and simple bigotry in the name of religion.

From the Central Conference of American Rabbis Statement on Misusing Religious Freedom to Justify Discrimination: “Recalling that religion was misused to justify American slavery—and later, Jim Crow—the CCAR insists that religion must not again be used as a state-sanctioned excuse for discrimination, against LGBT people or any person.”

Because Jews in America were at one time—and in some places even more recently—discriminated against in the public square even in this land of liberty for all, we have tended to stand in solidarity with those who face religious-justified discrimination in the public square today.

I was happy to be among Reform rabbis in Arkansas and Indiana who recently joined with so many other clergy in vigorously opposing state legislative efforts to enshrine bigotry under the guise of “religious liberty.