Georgia's "Religious Liberty" Proposals Do Not Match Jewish Values

[Updated January 26, 2015]

In Pirkei Avot 2:10 we are taught that Rabbi Eliezer said, 

 "יהי כבוד חברך חביב עליך כשלך"

“Let your neighbor’s dignity be precious to you as your own.”

This variation on Rabbi Hillel’s famous teaching from the Talmud (Shabbat 31a) is as clear as can be: You should care as much about your neighbor as you do yourself. Unfortunately that teaching isn’t so popular in the Georgia Legislature as of late. 

At this moment, five different bills intended to allow discrimination against LGBT people in the guise of “religious liberty" have been submitted to the legislature. In reality, these are religious exemption bills - bills that, if they become law, will allow people to turn their religious beliefs into weapons against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, & queer people and same-sex families:

SB 129, Georgia’s so-called “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” was introduced last year but sits tabled because its sponsors refused to add non-discrimination language. RFRA would nullify existing non-discrimination ordinances in local municipalities and affect public accommodations, among other things. NEW: A mirror RFRA bill, HB 837 was introduced this week.

HB 756 would allow private businesses to deny services to same-sex couples who want to hire wedding vendors, such as florists, bakers, or musicians. (In an attempt at fairness, the bill would also allow private businesses to deny services to couples of other religions, not just same-sex couples, if their beliefs conflicted with the business owner’s.)

HB 757, the “Pastor Protection Act” seemingly just affirms already existing first amendment protections for religious leaders who are afraid of being forced into performing same-sex weddings (they are already protected) but, its third section could roll back protections in the Georgia Fair Housing Act, which could be detrimental. 

SB 284, The newest bill, named “Georgia’s First Amendment Defense Act,” is modeled on the Federal proposal by the same name and allows for non-profit businesses to violate local non-discrimination ordinances or grant-based non-discrimination requirements even if the businesses receive public (taxpayer) funding. For example: religiously affiliated homeless shelters who take state funding would be able to turn away a same-sex couple, even if local law prohibits discrimination, and a religiously affiliated adoption agency could deny adoption to a same-sex couple while continuing to receive taxpayer funding and grants.

As a religious organization ourselves, we are incredibly sensitive to the idea of religious freedom and are strong supporters of it. However, we also understand that it is unacceptable to use taxpayer dollars to fund discrimination, as #FADA intends to do. It goes directly against the teachings of Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Eliezer. 

During last year’s battle over RFRA, we shared reasons as to why Georgia’s Jews weren’t supporting the fight. Those still hold true. Not surpisingly, there are so many more:

Leviticus 19:13 prohibits us from oppressing our neighbor. Verse 14 of the same chapter prohibits us from placing a stumbling block in front of the blind - we’re prohibited from making someone’s life even harder than it already is. That same verse prohibits us from being unrighteous in judgment, and verse 17 prohibits us from taking vengeance.

Make no mistake, these bills ARE a childish attempt at righteous vengeance. The sponsors of these bills have made it very clear that they do not believe that same-sex couples should have equal rights and legal protections, and they will do anything in their power to erode those few that are available to same-sex couples and LGBT families in Georgia. The want to impose their version of thought, belief, and religion onto the people of Georgia and they want to do so with the State’s blessing. 

Please help us in stopping them. The Jewish community has not asked for and does not want these bills to become law. As a religious minority we understand the danger of legislating morality. We understand that our beliefs belong to us and to us alone, and they are not to be used as weapons against anyone for any reason, even when we disagree.

Help us stand up for LGBT rights and safety. Join us and Georgia Unites now. While there you can send a message to your elected officials and sign up to be notified on other ways you can help fight these dangerous bills.

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Robbie Medwed

Robbie Medwed began working with SOJOURN when it was known as The Rainbow Center as a volunteer in 2008. He served as chair of the TRC Advisory Board and as co-chair of Purim off Ponce (2010, 2011) before moving into his current role as Assistant Director, where he oversees SOJOURN's educational programming and outreach, including our award-winning workshops and training seminars. Robbie holds a master's degree in Jewish education from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and has written curricula and nationally-recognized inclusive programs for the Marcus JCC of Atlanta, BBYO, USY, Camp Ramah, the Jewish Teen Funders Network, Babaganewz, and JewishGPS. Robbie is also a certified personal trainer, group fitness instructor, and cyclist. Robbie can be reached at robbie@sojourngsd.org.