Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Religious Discrimination — The First Amendment, Be Damned!

I don’t think that anyone would confuse me for an apologist for extremist Islam (or any other extremist religious philosophy). But some of the current verbal assaults against the rights of American Muslims are truly scaring me. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that I, as a Jew, am and always have been extremely sensitive to the First Amendment. I’ve paid close attention to efforts to impose one particular religious viewpoint upon those who don’t share that viewpoint and to efforts to make it harder for certain groups to practice their honestly held religious beliefs. And I’ve paid close attention to government endorsements of religion or actions that tend to infringe upon the free exercise of religion.

Until quite recently, most of the issues that I encountered were somewhat nuanced and were often more a result of ignorance than spite. For example, issues about prayer in schools or legislative sessions or use of religious images or symbols in public spaces were common. I’d certainly encountered the government (usually via a public school) seeming to endorse Christianity but, but it was far more rare to find the government (or even individual citizens) actively trying to hinder Judaic practice. About the worst that I usually see in this regard is failing to make accommodations for Jews who attend worship services on certain holidays and therefore don’t go to work/school/sporting events.

But all of that appears to be changing. Over the last year or two we’ve heard more and more Republicans, conservatives, and/or Tea Partiers making statements directly challenging the ability of Jews to practice their religion and even going so far as to challenge whether Judaism is really a religion at all. In Tennessee, citizens have gone to court to try to stop construction of a synagogue and, just this weekend, Herman Cain, a Republican presidential candidate (who is actually polling quite well) agreed that communities should have the right to stop a synagogue from being built. One of the reasons that Republicans and others use for the basis of this new discriminatory approach is that Judaism is not just a religion, but also an encompassing legal system. The Bible lays out a system of rules by which Jews are to live, usually referred as halacha. Most people are familiar with some of the simple rules (i.e., like which foods are considered kosher and acceptable to eat), but the rules govern far more, including such things as birth (including ritual circumcision), marriage (and divorce), and death, as well as other matters like manner of dress and grooming, and other requirements of and prohibitions for an observant Jew (such as driving a car on Shabbat). Republicans have expressed worries that Jews intend to spread that religious law to the United States as a whole, rather than simply to observant Jews who choose to follow halacha. And apparently, Republicans are threatened by this. Thus, they’ve begun to ignore the simple words of the First Amendment in their zeal to marginalize and discriminate against Jews.

Oh. Wait. Sorry. It isn’t Jews that Republicans, conservatives, and Tea Partiers have been discriminating against. It’s Muslims. My bad. Go back and read the preceding paragraph again and substitute Jew and Judaism with Muslim and Islam. Substitute Bible with Koran. And substitute halacha with sharia. They’re really that similar.

That Muslims seek to live in accordance with their religious understanding is, really, no different than Jews seeking to live in accordance with their own religious understanding. Yet because some Muslims would wield their religion as a sword, some Americans would seek to prohibit all (or nearly all) Muslims from practicing their faith. When Buddhist and Shinto Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, we didn’t seek to impose restrictions on Buddhism and Shintoism. Nor, for that matter, did we seek to impose restrictions on Lutheran or Catholic belief during World War I or World War II.

And think of it this way: Why is it that so many Christians are opposed to gay marriage or abortion? Why do so many Christians want to put the Ten Commandments in government buildings or schools? Might it be that they seek to either follow or impose their own set of religious rules, premised on their own religious text (or perhaps faulty understanding of that text, but that’s a discussion for another day)? How does the Catholic prohibition against meat on Fridays differ from the Jewish or Muslim prohibition against pork and shellfish? How does a Catholic ban on divorce differ from the Jewish requirement for a rabbinical court to grant a divorce? Why should a strict Christian understanding of abortion trump a traditional Jewish understanding of the issue?

Few people seem to object to laws that prohibit certain activities on Sunday in order to honor the Christian Sabbath, but you can imagine the uproar if someone proposed shifting that prohibition to Saturday (the Jewish Sabbath) or Friday (the Muslim Sabbath)?

Somehow in this whole asinine fear of sharia is the notion that Muslims will be able to impose their religious rules upon the rest of us. But that fear complete ignores two critical things: First, our laws are made by our elected representatives (and no, “activist judges” have not been imposing sharia law despite what some fearmongers on the right would have people believe; please read the American Civil Liberties Union’s report Nothing to Fear: Debunking the Mythical “Sharia Threat” to Our Judicial System). Second, the adoption of any sort of sharia-based law would still have to pass constitutional muster like any other law. Thus, Muslims will have no more success requiring all Americans to worship Allah than Christians will have in requiring all Americans to recognize Jesus.

I am frightened that any educated American would so willingly claim that a community could stop the construction of a house of worship for a religion that community dislikes. That fear becomes much more palpable when the American in question is a legitimate candidate for President. And that fear becomes almost indescribable when you consider just how many Americans seem to share the viewpoint expressed by Herman Cain.

I have no trouble with someone who fears terrorists. Nor do I have a problem with someone being critical of the Muslim community for not doing enough to delegitimize radical Islam and terrorism. And I don’t mind that Herman Cain doesn’t want to include terrorists in his cabinet (though I bristle at the implied suggestion that President Obama does want or already does include terrorists in his cabinet); but Cain himself (though he continues to try to run from the comment) didn’t limit the exclusion to terrorists, but to Muslims in general. To paint the entire Muslim community with the broad brush of terrorism such that the ability of American Muslims to peacefully practice their religion and participate in American civic and political life is hindered is not just unconstitutional, it is a violation of the very core principles that make America great.

Lately, we’ve heard a lot from the right about “American Exceptionalism” and it’s been a common theme of criticism against President Obama that he supposedly doesn’t believe in American Exceptionalism. But I’d like to ask people like Herman Cain and those who espouse ideas similar to his, just what is it about America that is so exceptional. Why are we better than the rest of the world? One of the answers to that, I believe, is the First Amendment. Another, I believe, is the concept that our country is a union where “we’re all in it together” (but again, that’s a discussion for another day). Thus, it seems to me that while the right gives lip service to the notion of American Exceptionalism, when it comes time to proverbially put their money where their mouth is, the right can’t seem to come to grips with the fact that American Exceptionalism (and the First Amendment) apply and protect to all Americans, not just those the right likes or who believe and think the same way. To paraphrase someone famous (though I can’t find the quote right now): The First Amendment isn’t needed to protect popular views and majority religions; rather the First Amendment’s strength is in protecting those who express an unpopular view or are a member of a minority religion.

Anybody who supports Herman Cain should really be called to answer for their own particular beliefs and understandings of the rights of religious minorities. Bigots must be called out and made to answer for their bigotry. And Herman Cain himself should be ostracized for the bigot that he’s shown himself to be.

For another analysis of Cain’s bigotry, please read Eugene Robinson’s terrific editorial Stand Up to Herman Cain’s Bigotry (and note that I wrote most of this blog post before Robinson’s editorial was posted…). And here’s a link to the story about what Herman Cain actually said.

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