Have you ever heard of a rabbi who was against religious freedom? I certainly hadn’t until last week when I became one. Well, I’m not really against religious freedom per se, but I am against the “Religious Freedom and Restoration Act” (RFRA). That bill, known as HB 5958, was passed by the Michigan House of Representatives on December 4 and could soon be passed by Michigan’s Senate and then signed into law by the Governor. I am concerned.
It would seem that any congressional bill that advocated for religious freedom would be a good thing. After all, I believe that one of the most cherished benefits of living in a democracy like the United States is that we all have the right to practice our own faith. However, this bill, if signed into law, would have many negative consequences. (A similar bill was ultimately vetoed by the Governor in Arizona.)
HB 5958 seeks to “limit governmental action that substantially burdens a person’s exercise of religion,” which includes “an act or refusal to act, that is substantially motivated by a sincerely held religious belief, whether or not compelled by or central to a system of religious belief.” This language would allow individuals to choose not to service other individuals on the basis of their religious beliefs. Imagine if a bakery owner was asked to produce a wedding cake for two homosexual men who were getting married. Claiming that his deeply held religious beliefs forbid homosexuality and therefore gay marriage, the bakery owner would be able to legally refuse to sell this couple a cake. In other words, his bigotry would be upheld by state law.
Another example would be a Jewish pharmacist who refuses to fill a medicine prescription for a fellow Jew with gelatin capsules on the basis that selling non-kosher pills to another Jew violates a religious law he follows. Perhaps a Catholic pharmacist would refuse to fill a prescription for birth control pills or an abortion pill. How about a Muslim shopkeeper who could, under HB 5958, refuse to sell a bottle of wine to a fellow Muslim, citing his own Islamic beliefs.
A few years ago I debated this topic while leading a seminar for second-year medical students. The question posed to the group was whether it was ethical for a Jehovah’s Witness health care worker to refuse to perform blood transfusions based on religious belief. Could they simply request that another health care worker perform such a procedure, or might this lead to a situation in which each medical employee of a hospital would have the ability to refuse certain procedures based on their own religious affiliation, causing chaos and confusion, not to mention risking the patients’ health?
The intent of HB 5958 is to protect the religious rights of Michigan’s citizens. But it would actually allow for religious tenets to be used for discrimination against individuals. In defense of this legislation, Michigan House Speaker Jase Bolger cited an example of a Jewish mother who does not want an autopsy performed on her deceased son because Jewish law forbids autopsies. Working as a hospital chaplain 15 years ago, I know how simple the process is for a Jewish family to request an autopsy be avoided on religious grounds. This bill is not necessary for that.
In fact, this bill would lead to more bigotry rather than less. A common example mentioned by opponents of HB 5958 is that a landlord could evict a gay tenant simply by arguing that a strict reading of his faith opposes homosexuality. While such a case would likely be thrown out of court, the innocent tenant would have the hassle of fighting for his rights against an opponent with state law on his side.
In support of this bill, Bolger said, “People simply want their government to allow them to practice their faith in peace.” The Religious Freedom Restoration Act, however, allows individuals to put their religious beliefs above civil law and cause hardship for other individuals.
In Judaism, we believe that the law of the land trumps religious law. We are instructed to follow Jewish law, but not if it comes into conflict with the laws of our nation or state. We have always been able to practice our religion freely in this country. What this bill would do if it’s passed by the Michigan Senate and signed by the Governor is force religious beliefs onto others. And that is immoral.
I am all for religious tolerance and freedom. There’s not a day that goes by that I’m not grateful I live in America and can practice my religion freely. Yet I cannot practice my religion unconditionally. I must abide by the civil laws of my state, which include laws governing others’ rights and freedoms and their ability to be protected from discrimination and intolerance. I hope other religious leaders in Michigan will oppose HR 5958 because we must all stand up for justice. Especially when a law could allow our religions to hinder it.
Rabbi Jason Miller is an entrepreneur, educator and writer. A social media expert, Rabbi Miller is a popular speaker and writer on technology and its effect on the Jewish world. He also writes for the Huffington Post, for the Jewish Techs blog and the monthly “Jews in the Digital Age” column for the Detroit Jewish News. Rabbi Miller is the president of Access Computer Technology, a computer tech support, web design and social media marketing company in Michigan. He won the 2012 Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award from the West Bloomfield Chamber of Commerce and is a winner of the Jewish Influencer Award from the National Jewish Outreach Program.