Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner's Testimony in Opposition to First Amendment Defense Act

Testimony of Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner
Director, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism
Religious Liberty and the First Amendment Defense Act (H.R. 2802)
Tuesday, July 12, 2016
House Oversight and Government Reform Committee

Press Release from the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism

On behalf of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), whose over 900 congregations include over 1.5 million Reform Jews across North America, and the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), which represents over 2,000 Reform rabbis, I submit this statement for the record in strong opposition to the First Amendment Defense Act, H.R. 2802.

The Reform Jewish Movement has long advocated for robust religious freedom rights and the separation of church and state, knowing one cannot exist without the other. These two principles are of such profound importance to our Movement because the United States, through its Constitution and laws, has protected, ensured and enhanced religious freedom and religious diversity, allowing the Jewish people to flourish in this country nearly unmatched anywhere else in the world. And, as Jews remain a religious minority in our country, we know the importance of maintaining a balance between religious freedom and the many other rights and freedoms that define who we are.

Just as the Reform Movement has been steadfast in pursuing religious freedom, we are deeply committed the equality and inclusion of all people in our synagogues and in our broader society. In fact, the Religious Action Center was founded in the height of the Civil Rights Movement, to live out the Jewish teaching to “[apply] the sharp ethical insights of the prophets to the specific social problems of our time, as well as to our daily lives.”[1] Our dedication to civil rights and social justice has been unwavering, and remains so today. A core element of that dedication has long been pursuing equality for the LGBT community.

We are guided by a fundamental belief that all human beings are created b’tzelem Elohim (in the Divine image), as it says in Genesis 1:27, "And God created humans in God’s own image, in the image of God, God created them." We oppose discrimination against all individuals, including members of the LGBT community, for the stamp of the Divine is present in each and every one of us, with unique talents to contribute to the high moral purpose of tikkun olam, the repair of our world. Excluding anyone from our community lessens our chance of achieving this goal of a more perfect world.

The scriptural teachings of our tradition, and our tradition’s injunctions to pursue social justice call on us to speak out against the First Amendment Defense Act. H.R. 2802 would irrevocably tilt the balance in favor of religious freedom against laws that protect against discrimination, without even the opportunity to assess what is the appropriate equilibrium for each situation. Moreover, this bill would make government entities and organizations receiving taxpayer-funds complicit in advancing this discrimination.

Legislation that couches such broad, unprecedented discrimination against the LGBT community in false claims to religious freedom undermines not just the principles of equality as affirmed by the Supreme Court decisions Obergefell v. Hodges (2015) and United States v. Windsor (2013), but also our nation’s fidelity to the promises of the First Amendment, which H.R. 2802 misleadingly purports to protect. That this bill would actively permit discrimination, not just against the LGBT community, but single mothers, unmarried couples and many more individuals, only underscores our reasons for opposing this legislation.

As civil rights for the LBGT community continue to expand, as it ought, our nation will continue to grapple with its dual pursuit of justice and equal opportunity for all people, as well as robust religious freedom rights. We are reminded in this time that we must aim to strike a wise and delicate balance between these fundamental American values. The First Amendment Defense Act would irrevocably upset this balance as to impinge upon the rights of all the people affected by this bill – the LGBT community, unmarried couples, single mothers and many more. As much as these issues are challenging, they deserve nuanced, subtle consideration, not such a broad-sweeping proposal.

I urge you to oppose the First Amendment Defense Act, H.R. 2802.

[1]The Religious Action Center and Its Operation,” Union for Reform Judaism (1961)