Why Jews Should Oppose SJ 7
Opening Remarks at Jewish Community Relations Council Workshop on
For the JCRC, there are really two questions about SJ 7. One is a policy question, and one is a question my grandmother would have asked. The policy question is: would this be good or bad for Indiana? The grandmother question is: would it be good or bad for the Jews?
There are a lot of bad public policies. Since the JCRC has limited resources, those resources need to be focused on issues that clearly threaten our community and our religious values. I think SJ 7 is such an issue, and is something the JCRC should actively oppose, because it isn’t just bad policy; it is also bad for the Jews.
I won’t spend a lot of time on the reasons it is bad policy, because those will undoubtedly be addressed by others. Let me just quickly enumerate some of them:
- It’s bad for economic development. Indiana is trying to recruit and grow high tech industries that employ a significant number of gay people. Sending a message that Indiana doesn’t value gay citizens won’t help.
- It’s bad for business. The language of Part B virtually ensures that there will be a lot of costly litigation over its application.
- It’s bad for civil liberties. SJ 7 would write discrimination into the constitution—a precedent I don’t think we want to set.
- It’s bad for families. This ban would do absolutely nothing to “protect” families, and claiming that it would is illogical. Look at the four most common justifications:
1) Gays are immoral. If legislators care so much about morality, why do they let rapists and murderers marry?
2) Marriage is for procreation. Then why do we let old people and sterile people get married?
3) Gay parenting is harmful to children. There isn’t a scrap of credible research supporting that assertion. Most of the “studies” cited as “evidence” come from the same good scholars who first alerted us to the fact that Sponge-Bob Squarepants is gay.
4) Same-sex unions will undermine the institution of marriage. We aren’t told how or why. For that matter, the same thing was said about interracial marriages, and about letting women own property and vote.
These aren’t reasons—they are excuses. So SJ 7 is bad public policy. But SJ 7 is also bad for the Jews. Not just because Jews do better in open and tolerant societies, although we do, but because the Jewish community has an enormously important stake in preserving the constitutional separation of church and state. SJ 7 is an effort to turn a religious belief held by some Christians into the law, in a state where many citizens—including many Christians—do not share that belief.
Now, all laws are based to some extent on a society’s shared moral premises—shared being the operative term. But in our constitutional system, in order to be legitimate, laws must be justified by what philosophers call “public reasons”—secular civic purposes that are not grounded solely in religious doctrine. Let me suggest an example: In Judaism, we circumcise baby boys eight days after birth. There is research suggesting that wives of men who have been circumcised may be less likely to get cervical cancer. (That research is actually a lot more credible than the research cited by proponents of SJ 7.) If we had enough votes, should we pass a law requiring that all male infants be circumcised, irrespective of the wishes or beliefs of the child’s parents? If we leave out the eight-day wait and don’t require that a mohel perform the circumcision, would such a law be a secular exercise of authority?
Or take a less fanciful example: women’s rights were fiercely resisted for decades, in substantial part because a majority of Americans believed God wanted women to stay home and be submissive to their husbands. That isn’t what policymakers said, of course—they talked about protecting the “traditional family.”
This is not just about marriage. The people who support this ban believe homosexuality is evil, and that equal rights for gays are an endorsement of evil. They are the same people who oppose application of Indiana’s civil rights laws to gays and lesbians, the same people who defeated a city ordinance extending health care coverage to domestic partners of gay city workers. The organizations opposed to same-sex unions are the same ones that sent angry letters to the editor when Mitch Daniels and Carl Brizzi adopted employment policies protecting workers from being fired for being gay.
This measure is part of a much wider campaign to marginalize an entire group of people because some Christian denominations disapprove of them, and part of an ongoing assault on separation of Church and State. If there is one thing Jews have learned over the centuries, it is that we do not do well in a society that gives government the right to decide whose beliefs and “lifestyles” are acceptable.
Here’s the deal: the First Amendment means that Jews have to honor the free speech rights of Nazis and anti-Semites. We have to protect the right of religious figures to say things like “God doesn’t hear the prayer of the Jew,” or “God hates fags.” And people whose religions disapprove of homosexuality have to swallow hard and honor the right of all Americans to equality before the law. They don’t have to approve, they don’t have to invite gay people (or Jews) to dinner. They can picket gay pride, they can denounce gay culture, they can run homophobic political candidates. But in a society that separates church from state, they cannot deprive an entire group of people of equal treatment before the law. That is the line in the sand—and once it is erased, no one is safe.
Since we’re talking about religion, let me just conclude by referencing a passage from Leviticus that I don’t hear quoted by proponents of SJ 7. It describes an old ritual in which the high priest placed his hands on the head of a goat, and confessed the sins of the people. The goat was then sent into the wilderness, taking the sins of the people with it.
When people are frightened, when their world no longer seems comprehensible, they need someone to blame and send into the wilderness—a scapegoat. The Germans wanted a reason for their lost war and ruined economy, and blamed the Jews. In Salem, when things went wrong, it was the witches. Today, for those who find themselves surrounded by social change and events they can’t understand or control, it’s “the homosexuals” and “the gay agenda.” It is understandable, but it is an enormously dangerous road to travel.
And—as my grandmother would have said—it’s a road that is very bad for the Jews.