Last Thursday a bi-partisan group of senators and representatives reintroduced the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA). Current federal law contains no prohibition on discriminating against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in personnel decisions. A number of states have taken their own action to protect employees of all sexual orientation and gender identity, but today it remains legal to fire, fail to hire, demote or fail to promote an employee because of their sexual orientation in 29 states – it remains legal to do so based on an employee’s gender identity in 34. The Employment Non-Discrimination Act seeks to close that gap and extend the current laws that protect people because of their race, gender, ethnicity, national origin, religion and disability to include protections based on gender identity and sexual orientation.
As the Commission on Social Action began its semi-annual meeting in conjunction with the Consultation on Conscience, Eisendrath Legislative Assistant Benny Witkovsky opened with this d’var Torah.
There is a lot in yesterday’s double Torah portion – Acharei Mot and Kedoshim – that feels relevant as we begin this Consultation on Conscience and Commission meeting. Many quotes, affectionately known as the RAC’s greatest hits, come from this parsha: “You shall be holy”, “Don’t stand idly by the blood of your neighbor,” “Welcome the stranger,” “Leave the corners of your field for the poor” yadda yadda yadda – all concepts that should and will be on our minds as we consider the social justice issues of the day. But I want to focus on something from the Parsha that will likely not be discussed for the rest of the week, goats.
Consultation on Conscience, the RAC’s biennial public policy conference, runs from Sunday through Tuesday. Hundreds of clergy and lay-leaders have travelled to the nation’s capital to learn from experts and to share best practices for pursuing social justice at the congregational level. Catching up from home? Follow #ConC on twitter and check in for updates on RACblog.
We cannot realize the Torah’s command to repair the world unless we, as a Jewish community, consider the great challenges confronting the entire world. That is why last night’s opening keynote at the Religious Action Center’s Consultation on Conscience by Ambassador to the United Nations Dr. Susan Rice was such an appropriate way to open and contextualize our conference. With our interests in security and stability in the Middle East, working toward sustainable and equitable development in the Global South, and protecting human rights around the world, the words of Ambassador Rice could not be more relevant to our community.
We read in Proverbs, “Train up a child in the way the child should go, and even when the child is old, they will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6). This idea speaks not only to the importance of education in the Jewish tradition, but to carrying out that education in a way that teaches children to be just and compassionate. Thus it should be of particular concern to us as a community when our youth are educated in unequal environments.
The Boys Scouts of America (BSA) has long been an example of a concerning environment. Despite the camaraderie, the character building and the training Boy Scout troops offer to America’s youth, they have long refused to admit gay and transgender people as scouts and scout leaders. The Reform Movement has consistently spoken out against this policy, urging all of our congregations to break their ties with the BSA in 2001.
However this unjust policy may soon be changing. The BSA announced today that they will be introducing a resolution at their board meeting in May to adopt a national non-discrimination policy against gay and transgender youth. The BSA has been considering changes for some time, but many had thought that they would leave it up to individual troops to decide on their own policy. This announcement of a national non-discrimination policy, which many LGBT rights group had advocated for, is a welcome change.
In a bizarre inconsistency the BSA announced that it would not change its policy regarding gay scout leaders and continue to bar the participation of LGBT adults. One might ask what message it sends to LGBT youth that they can participate in the organization as children but once they reach adulthood they are to be disqualified. Both aspects of this policy still have to be approved by the Boy Scouts national board at their meeting next month.
Of course the Boy Scouts are not the only place that LGBT youth face discrimination in America today. Sadly, too many children experience bullying and harassment in schools because of their real or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity. While current law allows students legal recourse to challenge discrimination in schools based on race, gender and religion, there is no national law that allows such action against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Yesterday Senator Al Franken (D-MN) and Reps. Ros Lehtinen (R-FL) and Polis (D-CO) introduced the Student Non-Discrimination Act, which would fix this hole in the law. The Union for Reform Judaism has joined a number of religious, civil rights and education organizations in publically calling for this critical piece of legislation.
Perhaps between the BSA reevaluating its discriminatory policy and the consideration of legal protections for LGBT youth we can as a nation take an important step toward making sure our children are “trained up in the way they should go” toward justice and equality.
Image courtesy of scouting.org
Jewish tradition talks a lot about taxes and the importance of everyone contributing to the common good. Jewish tradition talks a lot about love, marriage and committed relationships. But how much does Jewish tradition talk about those two things together? Regardless of what tradition intended, these two facets of everyday life have become profoundly intertwined. For this reason Tax Day, April 15th, stands out as a day when our nation’s discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people is acutely felt.
According to the Human Rights Campaign LGBT people – even those who are legally married – miss out on hundreds, if not thousands of dollars of federal tax benefits. The average LGBT family pays an extra $1,100 a year in taxes for health care coverage (that is when same-sex partners aren’t entirely denied health benefits and required to pay for them out of pocket). LGBT people who cannot legally claim their children as dependents frequently pay up to $1,000 extra on their taxes; many may miss out on the Earned Income Tax Credit costing them over 2,000 dollars.
Much of this inequality is the result of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act, signed into law by President Clinton in 1996, which prohibits the federal government from recognizing same-sex couples. This law was challenged in a case heard by the Supreme Court last month and will hopefully be struck down in the coming months. The Union for Reform Judaism, the Central Conference of American Rabbis and the Women of Reform Judaism (among a number of other Jewish and non-Jewish religious groups) all filed briefs in the case declaring the law unjust.
Love, marriage and equal recognition under the law are of course about much more than tax benefits. However days like yesterday, when the injustice of heterosexism can be expressed so clearly in dollars and federal paperwork, are important times to speak out for equality.
Image Courtesy of Thirstock
On Yom Hashoah we remember the great tragedy that we as a people and as a world faced during World War II over 60 years ago. But how do we use that memory today? To what end does that experience motivate our community? Surely one answer is that we as a people must be particularly attuned to atrocities committed around the world.
Yesterday the United Nations observed a Day of Remembrance for victims of the Rwandan genocide. This week marks the 19th anniversary of the beginning of a 100 day period during which hundreds of thousands of Rwandan men, women and children were murdered, and countless others forcibly displaced. Fifty years after the international community said ‘never again’ to the atrocities of the Holocaust, the world let the people of Rwanda down.
Speaking in 2004 Rabbi David Saperstein demanded surer action to atrocities in the future, “As a Jew and as a rabbi, I stand here today because, for thousands of years, the Jewish people have been among the quintessential victims of persecution and oppression simply because of who we are, because of what we believe. We waited for others to speak out, but too often we heard only silence. “
Rabbi Saperstein continued, “Having witnessed and experienced the horrors of the Holocaust, the world collectively cried, ‘Never Again!’ Never again would we stand idly by while human beings are slaughtered because of their race, ethnicity, nationality, or religion. We are not powerless to stop the oppression of others; we have the power to speak out, to act, to intervene, to ensure that genocidal activities stop now.”
Steps are being taken to learn from these experiences and seek better ways to prevent and respond to atrocities around the world. In 2012 President Obama unveiled the Atrocities Prevention Board, an interagency board to ensure that genocide prevention is a top priority in U.S. foreign policy. A warlord responsible for mass violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo had his first day in court at the Hague last month. We owe it to the memory of the Holocaust and the memory of Rwanda to strengthen and support these important advances.
The recent hunger strike at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay has thrown the controversy surrounding the prison back into the news cycle. The hunger strike, which began several weeks ago, has grown to include at least 39 of the 166 men in custody (nearly a quarter of the detainees, and those are only the ones that the Department of Defense will confirm; many believe the number is much higher). DoD has confirmed that several of these men have lost upwards of 20-30 pounds, and ten of them are currently being force-fed.
In July of 2012, James Holmes stormed a movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado, opened fire in a showing of The Dark Knight Rises, killed 12 people, and injured 58 others. If the prosecutor in Holmes’s trial has his way, Holmes will be executed for the senseless, mass tragedy that he inflicted. Despite the horrific nature of Holmes’s actions, we do not live in an “eye for an eye society” and the death penalty is still an inappropriate response.
“For James Eagen Holmes, justice is death” declared George Brauchler, the district attorney for Arapahoe County, announcing his decision to pursue the death penalty and reject Holmes’s guilty plea that would have had the shooter serve life in prison with no chance of parole. The declared intention was met with great applause from many of the friends of Aurora shooting victims, who shared the sentiment that justice and the death penalty went hand in hand.
While an announcement to seek the death penalty might appease some in the short run, capital punishment is not the answer.
Will the death penalty in this case serve as a deterrent to other mass murderers? Probably not. A recent report indicated that 88% of the top U.S. criminologists do not believe that the death penalty serves as a deterrent to homicide. When mass-murderers are willing to kill themselves after taking the lives of others, as was the case at Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, and many others, there is little reason to think that the threat of a state imposed death after a prolonged legal battle should have any effect on a shooter’s psyche.
Rather than provide the closure that families seek, the pursuit of capital punishment only guarantees years of trials and a lack of finality. It plays to the raw feeling of revenge, but does little more. Opponents of the death penalty point out that the slow and drawn out process of a capital punishment case actually “re-victimizes” those affected by the original crime.
If ever there were a case where the merits of the death penalty were clear, it would be the case of James Holmes; yet even still, capital punishment is not the answer. The Talmud teaches us that “he who takes one life it is as though he has destroyed the universe and he who saves one life it is as though he has saved the universe” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5). The value of preserving human life extends even to those who seek to destroy it. In 1959, the Reform Movement explained:
“We believe it to be the task of the Jew to bring our great spiritual and ethical heritage to bear upon the moral problems of contemporary society. One such problem, which challenges all who seek to apply God’s will in the affairs of Main, is the practice of capital punishment. The legal execution of a criminal is an anachronism in a society which has long since abolished the primitive concept of an “eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” We believe that in the light of scientific knowledge and concepts of humanity, the resort to or continuation of capital punishment either by a state or a national government is morally unjustifiable.”
Image courtesy of Crenny/Photobucket.com