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Eliminating workplace discrimination brings us closer to the values of our nation


In June, a group of 37 faith organizations released a joint letter – from Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, and Muslim groups – calling on the U.S. Senate to pass as expeditiously as possible the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (S.811). This common-sense piece of legislation prohibits workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, with broad exemptions for religious liberty.

One of the reasons so many faith groups have publicly come out in support of ENDA is the fact that it is a profoundly moral issue: All people deserve the ability to provide for their families without having to hide who they are or worry that they will be discovered. One of the reasons we chose to issue the letter now is because of the media’s focus on those in the religious community who oppose civil rights protections for the LGBT community; they do not represent large segments of the religious community.

A few observations on what led us at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism to help coordinate this effort:

As people of faith, we are taught that all people are created in the image of the Divine – for it is written, in Genesis (1:27), “And God created humans in God’s own image, in the image of God, God created them; male and female God created them.” As such, we oppose all discrimination – including that against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people – for we are all imprinted with the stamp of the Divine and entitled to be treated with equal dignity, equal respect, equal rights.

As Jews, we share a keen empathy for those who face discrimination in the workplace, for it is not so long ago that we, too, faced such discrimination. We have long been counted among the quintessential victims of group persecution and discrimination in Western civilization. The memory of the demoralizing effect of second-class citizenship lives on in our group consciousness. To avoid this fate, we were too often told to hide our identity, to remain ambiguous about who we are if we wished to find employment or success in the public sphere. Conversely, when finally given equal rights and opportunity, Jewish communities have flourished and contributed significantly to the communities and nations of which we are a part.

Our support for ENDA reaches beyond our own history and faith, however. It is simply good public policy. This legislation is a common-sense and measured civil rights bill which will address the widespread problem of workplace discrimination and bring us closer to the values upon which our nation was founded.

Nonetheless, I – and the 37 faith-group signatories of the letter – recognize that American religious traditions have differing views about homosexuality and about the religious aspects of issues like marriage equality. Just as equality is a key part of our American tradition, so, too, is the respect for religious liberty. Every faith is entitled to interpret its texts and practice its beliefs. This is why ENDA includes a robust protection for religious liberty. Section 6 of the legislation provides any group exempted from the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – including religious groups – will be exempted from ENDA as well.

Some groups, however, argue that the current exemption is too broad; I will leave the debate on the substance of that argument for another time. Instead, we need to focus now on the need to bring this bill to passage. If we are to succeed, there is an important lesson to remember from the recent controversy over contraception coverage in the President’s health care plan. When the exemption was a narrow one, it took the focus of the entire debate away from health care and reproductive rights to the issue of preserving religious liberty. But when the administration acted to broaden the exemption, it changed the debate back to the fundamental right of reproductive health care for women and brought a number of groups that had opposed the first version to a position of either support or neutrality.

So, too, with this exemption. The current exemption for religious groups is similar to the exemption that we in the pro-LGBT equality community have supported in prior versions of ENDA. Remember, in 2007, this same religious exemption passed in the House of Representatives with 402 votes in favor – including those of the Republican leadership.

A number of faith groups and other potential opponents who had qualms about ENDA as a whole remained neutral or engaged in only low-key opposition. Even Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) voted in favor of the bill, possibly because of the broad religious exemption. Narrowing the exemption in today’s even more divisive atmosphere would likely shift the focus away from civil rights and evoke full-scale opposition. Our goal should be to get this legislation passed to greatly expand civil rights protections for the LGBT community while addressing legitimate religious liberty concerns. The current bill achieves this. Let’s push forward.

Rabbi David Saperstein is a lawyer who has served as the director and chief legal counsel at the Union for Reform Judaism’s Religious Action Center for more than 30 years.

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