WASHINGTON (JTA) — Lynn Schusterman, a passionate and impactful philanthropic leader in the American Jewish community, has called upon Jewish organizations to adopt policies that will foster greater inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered Jews in the community. Specifically, in a recently published essay, Schusterman asked “all Jewish organizations to join [her] foundation in adopting non-discrimination hiring policies that specifically mention sexual orientation …,” challenged other foundations and donors in the Jewish community to join her in “holding organizations accountable for doing so,” and said her foundation “will only consider funding organizations that have non-discrimination policies covering … sexual orientation.”
While the value of including all Jews within the community is important, Schusterman’s proposal, if fully implemented, would include some Jews by virtue of excluding others and trample upon a value that is at least as important to American Jewry — religious liberty.
Schusterman, who of course is free to allocate her private foundation’s funds as she wishes, has overlooked the simple fact that many synagogues and day schools, as well as other institutions, run under Orthodox auspices or the auspices of other “traditional” views, cannot embrace or validate homosexual activity as legitimate. This perspective is based upon clear and firm teachings of Jewish law and tradition going back to the Bible.
Thus an Orthodox, or otherwise traditional, Jewish institution cannot adopt a policy that recognizes a person’s “sexual orientation” as a feature of the same status as their race, ethnicity or gender without violating religious principles. And the coercion of such an institution to adopt such a policy would be a violation of its religious liberty, not to mention intolerant of its deeply held beliefs.
In that last point lies an irony of Schusterman’s call to action. In her essay Schusterman approvingly cites an effort last year in which thousands of Jews lobbied Congress for the passage of pending gay rights laws — including the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would outlaw workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The irony is that the act contains an explicit and broad exemption for religious institutions, such as synagogues and day schools, from its coverage.
My organization, together with Catholic and other Christian representatives, successfully negotiated this exemption with proponents of gay rights in the workplace led by U.S. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, with the blessing of the Human Rights Campaign, Rabbi David Saperstein of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, the Anti-Defamation League and many other gay rights advocates. They realized that an exemption for religious employers is a necessary balancing of civil rights for gays with the religious liberties of sectarian institutions.
Saperstein expressed this best in testimony before Congress.
“It is clear that within our nation’s diversity of faith traditions, there are, however, differing views about homosexuality," he told the lawmakers. Every faith is entitled to its own interpretation of its holy texts, and every individual is entitled to believe in a way of his or her own choosing. … [Legislation] that did not permit houses of worship, seminaries, religious schools and other religious organizations to be guided by the tenets and teachings that embody the essence of their faith would break with our country’s long-standing tradition of religious freedom.
The religious exemption, he said later, "protects the right of religious communities to make their own employment decisions in this sensitive area.”
Schusterman, admittedly in the private sphere, would champion gay rights over religious liberty without even acknowledging the competing values, let alone trying to strike a balance between them. If taken to its logical conclusion, Schusterman’s proposal would result in Orthodox and other traditionally run institutions being excluded from Jewish community support by having them denied funding from Jewish foundations and, one presumes, federations. This not only would inflict real harm upon many already underfunded schools and other charities and those they serve, it would drive a wedge through the heart of those institutions designed to bring our diverse community together.
The Orthodox Union is on record supporting carefully crafted initiatives that seek to ensure principles of tolerance, anti-discrimination and the fair treatment of all citizens. A hallmark of such initiatives is that they are balanced and do not expand some civil rights at the expense of others.
Lynn Schusterman and others who seek greater inclusion for gays in the Jewish community must strike this balance, too, if their real goal is liberty and justice for all.
(Nathan Diament is the director of the Institute for Public Affairs of the Orthodox Union.)