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.
Of course, what RFRA had in mind were personal religious practices that didn’t significantly affect anyone else: wearing a yarmulke, consuming peyote in a religious context, that sort of thing. It was a shield against government coercion.
In the last few years, however, a network of arch-conservative Catholic organizations and familiar, Christian-Right Protestant ones has sought to redefine religious liberty as a sword, not a shield. Led by the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative think tank, they have gone from state to state promoting “mini-RFRAs” to allow religious belief to trump any law at all, especially those prohibiting discrimination. Arizona’s is one of these. So is Georgia’s, Idaho’s, and South Dakota’s.
Now, we all know what this is really about: Religious conservatives disapproving of gay people. Trouble is, you can’t come out and say that in a law, because then it won’t pass judicial review. (This was the problem in Idaho, which withdrew its mini-RFRA just as the Arizona legislature passed its.) So, the laws are written more broadly. “Religious freedom” is proposed as a defense to any lawsuit at all.
But the trouble with that is, it includes too much. Suppose I’m a conservative Christian who sincerely believes that the Jews killed Christ, and contemporary Jews must be held accountable. Under the mini-RFRA, I can simply hang a “No Jews Allowed” sign on the front door of my store, inn, restaurant, or yoga studio — and that is perfectly legal.
Or suppose I believe that God demands racial segregation — as Bob Jones University claimed a few years ago. Now I can go back to “Whites Only” drinking fountains, as long as I can prove I’m motivated by a sincere religious belief. Which many racists are.
Of course, this isn’t what the Ethics and Public Policy Center, the conservative think tank behind the mini-RFRAs, may have in mind. They just want pharmacists not to have to dispense birth control pills, photographers not to have to take pictures of gay couples, and corporations of any size not to have to cover same-sex partners on their insurance plans.
But then again, using religious freedom as a sword wasn’t what RFRA’s authors had in mind either. Once you open Pandora’s Box, it’s open.
Let’s invite our Orthodox friends to rethink their shortsighted support of these laws, which ultimately are bad for gays, Jews, and anyone else who might be the target of discrimination. Let’s tell them: don’t sell America’s birthright of religious pluralism for a bowl of anti-gay porridge. Let’s not make Arizona the next Uganda.
Jay Michaelson is a contributing editor to the Forward.