Will Arizona become the next Uganda?
As we go to press, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer is debating whether to sign a “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” that will allow discrimination if the discriminator claims a religious justification. It’s been nicknamed the “Turn The Gays Away” bill because it will allow any business — restaurants, nail salons, stadiums — to refuse to serve gay people because of its owners’ religious beliefs.
This is not quite the same as Uganda’s new anti-gay law, which imposes life imprisonment for homosexuals. But both laws are part of a backlash against the gains made by the LGBT movement in the United States. And in both places, those who wish to discriminate are the ones claiming to be victims.
In Uganda, the victims are said to be innocent Africans, whose traditional values are being imperialized by the West. Never mind that the “Kill the Gays” bill was actually largely written by American Evangelicals like Scott Lively. Never mind that forms of same-sex love have been celebrated in Africa for centuries. And never mind that LGBT Ugandans are not demanding any change at all — other than to be left alone. No, it’s “traditional” Ugandans who are the victims here. And who, as of today, can now have gay people imprisoned for life.
In Arizona, the victims are said to be good, upstanding Christians who don’t want homosexuality shoved down their throat. How, exactly, is it being shoved? By laws that say I can’t be fired simply for being gay. Or that all businesses, even those owned by religious people, have to obey the same anti-discrimination laws. Or that hanging out a sign saying “No Gays Allowed” is not the American Way.
Most American Jews, thankfully, have had enough experience with discrimination to know that these laws aren’t shoving anything anywhere — they’re protecting minorities from majorities. And most know that legitimizing prejudice of any kind is bad for everyone. This is why organizations like the Anti-Defamation League have taken the lead in opposing these laws.
Shockingly, however, a handful of Orthodox Jewish organizations — the Orthodox Union, Agudath Israel, and Yeshiva University — are supporting these laws that distort the true meaning of “religious freedom.” Which is ironic, because it will end up hurting Jews as much as anyone.
To understand this topsy-turvy reality, we need a bit of background.
“Religious Freedom” used to be a shield, not a sword. In the 1990s after the government tried to prosecute Native Americans for using peyote, Jews, Christians, and civil libertarians banded together to register their objection. One result was the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” passed mostly by Democrats. This act said that the government may only restrict religious conduct under very rare circumstances.