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In fact, every instance the Christian right proffers as a violation of “religious liberty” is actually a prohibition on discrimination. Stern wants wedding photographers to be able to refuse to photograph same-sex couples (where, exactly, is that written in the Torah?) and for private companies to be allowed to refuse to pay for an insurance plan that an employee might later use to obtain contraception. But these cases aren’t about religious liberty; they’re about imposing religious views on others, discriminating against others and creating a system whereby some of us have to obey the law and others of us do not.
The fact that the AJC, with its legacy of fighting discrimination, is here on the side of discrimination is shocking. Nor is this merely an issue of women’s rights or gay rights (though that would be sufficient). Suppose a restaurant owner believes that the Jews killed Jesus, and as a result he posts a “No Jews Allowed” sign on the door. Should this be allowed because it’s part of his “religious liberty”? Or suppose Catholic Charities decides not to place infants up for adoption with Jewish couples, as it currently refuses to do with same-sex couples? Should this, too, be allowed, because of “religious liberty”?
Stern is not an ideologue. He has made his case not only in op-eds, but in lengthy law review articles, as well. But he is placing the AJC on the wrong side of history, on the wrong side of the American Jewish community (70% of which supports marriage equality, according to a recent poll), and the wrong side of justice.
He is also aligning it with the very right-wing forces most Jews rightly oppose. Stern’s allies are the same people who want to ban all abortion without any exceptions, who want to teach “intelligent design” in schools, who remind us — as if we can ever forget — that ours is a “Christian Nation.”
And make no mistake: “Religious liberty” is a canard. No one is attacking individual conscience or religious practice; these cases are only about the right to discriminate. In other words, this isn’t really about the principle of religious liberty, it’s about the substantive laws underneath. Since they oppose abortion, they craft “religious exemptions” so that hospitals do not provide them. They oppose LGBT equality, so they tell me that my New York State marriage license is not as valid as someone else’s.
They also cynically exploit the fears that many people have about marriage equality. In Minnesota last fall, Stern’s gang of “religious liberty” activists told people that their churches and ministers might be forced to solemnize same-sex marriages. This is a cold lie. No church or synagogue will ever be forced to conduct any wedding of any kind — not interfaith, or interracial, or same-gender — if doing so contravenes its religious tenets. And they know it.
I am sure that if the AJC’s well-intentioned supporters knew how Stern is using the AJC’s good offices and funds to support a far-right agenda of discrimination, anti-choice activism and creeping theocracy, they would rise up in opposition to it. Now they know.
Jay Michaelson is a contributing editor to the Forward.