Religious belief vs. pretext
There I stood, 13 and terrified. At Beth Torah Congregation in Toronto, on a bimah that my grandfather had literally helped build, I was chanting from a Torah scroll that his father had saved from their synagogue in eastern Poland and smuggled through the war – the same parchment from which my father, uncles and cousins had all read in turn.
The congregation’s eyes seemed to bore tiny holes into my skull as I read the most infamous words of my Torah portion, Acharei Mot: “Thou shalt not lie with mankind as with womankind: it is abomination.”
Bathed in family history and tradition, I thought I was about to drown. I may not have been the first gay shlemazel to have to swallow the words of Leviticus 18:22 during his bar mitzvah, but as the text passed my lips, I still felt completely alone.
The following year, as I was beginning to come out to my family and friends, the Supreme Court of Canada told an evangelical Christian university that it was free to exclude gays from its teacher education program. More than a decade later, the same university, Trinity Western, is invoking that ruling – and my bar mitzvah portion – as it claims the right to open an anti-gay law school.
They’re wrong, and anyone who truly cares about religious freedom should say so.
It’s far from clear that the Supreme Court’s 2001 decision – written, as it was, at a different time and on different facts – still empowers Trinity Western to discriminate against gays and lesbians. Yet, even if it does, the university’s anti-gay policy makes a mockery of freedom of religion. It’s one thing for people of faith to believe that gays are doomed to eternal hellfire, but it’s quite another to exclude them from a law school on that basis.
Read a Christian Bible cover to cover. It doesn’t end well for the Jews, either. Still, those of us who don’t accept Jesus Christ as lord and savior are welcome at Trinity Western University – provided that we don’t sleep with anyone of the same sex while we’re there.
If allowing Jewish students to practise Judaism isn’t a threat to Trinity Western’s religious freedom, what’s so different about allowing gay students to be gay? After all, according to evangelical Christians, we’re all going to end up shvitzing in the same place.
Imagine if the university required Jewish students to promise to abstain from Judaism. If that isn’t discrimination, neither was the Spanish Inquisition.
Can Christian scripture provide a basis for homophobia? Of course it can. Look no further than Leviticus 18:22. But the same set of texts might just as readily forgive racism, slavery or antisemitism. Why doesn’t Trinity Western discriminate against Jews or blacks the way it discriminates against gays? Because only fanatics would ever accept religious excuses for the former, and nothing does more to discredit religious freedom than using it to justify bigotry.
Anti-gay discrimination should be no exception. Those of us who depend on freedom of religion to protect our own beliefs should be the first to condemn its misuse. That doesn’t mean asking Christians (or Jews, or Muslims) to ignore scripture that prohibits homosexuality – though many do, and more should – but it does require us never to condone its use as a basis for odious discrimination. After centuries of blood libel, Jews are only too familiar with intolerance preached from the pulpit.
Those words that darkened my bar mitzvah portion – “v’et zachar lo tishkav mishk’vei ishah to’evah hu” – are chanted in synagogues around the world each year. After more than a decade, they still sting.
We can’t rewrite Leviticus, nor can we force the faithful to overlook passages that give us pause. But that doesn’t mean we can’t distinguish religious belief from religious pretext. If freedom of religion can justify almost anything, then it will be good for almost nothing. It’s up to those of us who need it to defend it from itself.
Adam Goldenberg is a Kirby Simon Human Rights Fellow at Yale Law School, a former Liberal speechwriter and a contributor to CBC News: The National. Follow him at twitter.com/adamgoldenberg. This article originally appeared in the Canadian Jewish News and is reprinted with permission. For more national Jewish news, visit cjnews.com.