By Noa Tann, NFTY-OV
At 10am on Thursday, March 26, Governor Mike Pence of Indiana signed into law the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, or RFRA. Based on name alone, this bill sounds like a measure that NFTY would support – after all, religious freedom is the fundamental right that allows us to live and thrive as American Jews, without fear of discrimination. However, Indiana’s newest law has a misleading moniker. In its own words, RFRA prevents the government from “substantially burden[ing] a person’s right to the exercise of religion.” Still pretty good, right? But in reality, RFRA makes the right to religious freedom trump laws designed to prevent discrimination. It essentially allows people (defined by the government to include businesses and corporations) to use their religious beliefs to discriminate against others. And the consequences are not just hypothetical. Other states have passed RFRA laws that have already been used to excuse inexcusable acts of violence and discrimination. In Oklahoma, a police officer used RFRA to justify his refusal to serve at a community event hosted by a local Islamic Society. In Arizona, a religious leader cited RFRA in his appeal after being convicted of sexually abusing two teenagers. Historically, measures protecting religious freedom in similar ways have been used to defend the abuse of women and children.
In Indiana, a particularly nasty brand of discrimination is the main threat from RFRA: homophobia. A majority conservative state, Indiana struggled against an openly discriminatory bill from 2011 to 2014 that amended the state constitution to include a ban on same-sex marriage. Going under the names of HJR-6 and later HJR-3, this amendment passed in the Indiana legislature and was only barely defeated by the intervention of federal judges. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act is partly a response to the legalization of same-sex marriage. It’s clear to me, and to so many of my peers, that RFRA sends a message to the world about Indiana’s values: despite the recent victory for marriage equality, discrimination against LGBT+ people is still the norm. RFRA allows for discrimination based on religious values. But when a significant portion of the state’s population considers a historically oppressed group to be unnatural, immoral, and inferior based on their religion’s principles, it’s simple to see how RFRA unfairly targets Indiana’s LGBT+ community. Under this law, a high school counselor could deny aid to queer or trans* students. A restaurant could refuse to serve same-sex couples. Housing, employment, even healthcare, could be denied to the entire LGBT+ community. And all of this would happen under the protection of the law.
In an attempt to strengthen the religious freedom that is essential to our lives as Reform Jews, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act violates a higher law: equality. Call it the Golden Rule, “Do unto others,” or “B’tzelem Elohim,” the idea that all people should be treated with respect is universal. RFRA does not reflect the values of NFTY when it allows for the unequal treatment of Indiana residents. To show our commitment to living according to our values and not supporting discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community or any minority, the general assembly of NFTY Ohio Valley passed a resolution on Friday, March 27. Citing the URJ’s long history of supporting equality and inclusion for the LGBTQ+ community both within and outside of our kehillah kedosha, the resolution stipulates that NFTY OV will actively seek to patronize businesses that do not discriminate against any group, and will actively avoid businesses that do. NFTY OV encourages all Indiana synagogue youth and our affiliates to join us in doing business with those who share our values, and we also invite other NFTY regions to respond to similar laws in similar ways.
Equality for all people is an ambitious goal, but with the power of tikkun olam and a little bit of chutzpah, Jewish youth are making a difference.