‘Religious liberty” is the new “family values.” That’s the conclusion of a new, exhaustive, 30,000-word report just released by the think-tank Political Research Associates and prepared by this writer. There is a covert, well-coordinated, heavily financed campaign to reframe questions of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality, as well as reproductive rights, into claims that civil rights violate “religious liberty.”
We have heard this before. When coercive prayer was banned in school, the Christian right complained about religious liberty. When Bob Jones University lost its tax exemption because it discriminated against African Americans, the Christian right complained about religious liberty. And now, when private employers cannot control their employees’ access to contraception, the Christian right complains about religious liberty.
But there is something new this time. Alongside the Becket Fund, an arch right-wing advocacy organization funded by the Catholic Church, and alongside the Family Research Council and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, there are a handful of unlikely Jewish bedfellows. Two of these, the Orthodox Union’s Nathan Diament and Yeshiva University’s Meir Soloveichik, have long provided the Jewish window-dressing for the Christian right’s radical agenda. But this time, Marc Stern, the American Jewish Committee’s associate general counsel for legal advocacy, has joined his voice to the chorus of the Christian right.
The juxtaposition is jarring. Seeing the AJC alongside conservative Catholics and Evangelicals reminds one of the “Sesame Street” song “One of These Things Is Not Like the Others.” What is going on?
As far back as 2008, Stern ominously wondered, in a Los Angeles Times editorial, “Will gay rights trample religious freedom?” Never mind that in Los Angeles, it was the Mormon Church and the Catholic Church that spent millions of dollars to impose their religious beliefs on others in the form of Proposition 8 (in late March, its constitutionality will be argued at the Supreme Court). No, Stern worried, the real victims were religious people who were no longer allowed to discriminate.
Like who? Like the students who were barred from wearing anti-gay T-shirts to school, in violation of the school’s “safe schools” policy. Apparently, the only way these students can practice their religion is to demonize others.
Stern and his Christian right colleagues tell us that the real victims here are the Christian students not allowed to express their “religious views.” Funny, I can’t recall Christian students killing themselves because gays and lesbians were bullying them, whereas the LGBT teen suicide rate is eight times that of the general population. Who is really the victim here?
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.