Perhaps it is not a coincidence that the furor over the ‘religious freedom’ bills passed in Indiana and Arkansas has erupted the very week that Jews sit down to celebrate our festival of freedom, Passover. The story we tell at the seder table is one of ascension, of going from a low point to a high point, of rising spiritually and physically towards the blessing of freedom, all the while leaving slavery behind. Religious freedom is a piece of this story, but not all of it, and I would argue not even the heart of it. Instead, at its core, the story of Passover is about the sense of freedom that is inherently connected with human dignity. Extending that idea, I would say the freedom of human dignity trumps the freedom of religion. Every time. That is to say – if your religious views, your practice of religion, your belief about God and what God wants from you, infringe on another person’s dignity, you have to lay aside your religious requirement and let human dignity prevail. And by the way, don’t worry about God – God can handle it.
And before you ask, yes, I’ve read the text of the Indiana bill. If you can understand it, you are a better person than I. It is a series of cobbled together phrases, legalistic code words, obtuse and inscrutable. The recently added amendment to the Indiana text is clearer than the original law, and seems to offer the proper protections to minorities, ensuring that a business owner cannot refuse services to someone out of prejudice, whether racial, religious, gender, or sexual orientation based. (You can find both texts on the Indiana General Assembly website iga.in.gov ). But why go there in the first place? At the end of the day the heart of the matter seems fairly straight forward to me, crystal clear even. You have the right to practice your religion in your own way. No one can take that away from you, no one can force you to violate your faith tradition in terms of your own behavior. But what other folks do, believe, practice religiously is none of your business, and you do not have the right to impose your religious views on someone else. You do not have the right to force someone else to adhere to your belief system or your religious practice. Take abortion, for example. If you believe abortion is religiously not permitted, no one can force you to have an abortion. But at the same time you don’t have a right to impose your religious belief about abortion on someone else, denying them their right to that procedure.
Legislation of this nature is more than unpalatable. It feels dangerous, potentially creating a strange legal space for certain people to impose their religious views on others. It is not just about the LGBT community. Someone could just as easily use laws of this nature to defend the fact that they won’t do business with people in the African American community, or Asian community, or Jewish community for that matter. The list could go on and on. This is a free country, and people can worship how they choose, but they should not be able to make other folks tow any kind of religious line.
In these ongoing debates, I am often reminded of the old adage ‘get your own house in order.’ I don’t know about those legislators in Indiana and Arkansas. Maybe their moral characters are in such good shape that the only thing they have left to worry about is the way other people behave. But I’ve got plenty of work to do right here in my own back yard. I’ll stick to that, and frankly, I wish others would mind their own business in the same way.