On Religious Liberty

Posted on September 27, 2018 by

A blog post by Deputy Director Tracie Guy-Decker. Read more posts from Tracie by clicking HERE.

I recently had a conversation about the separation of church and state with an acquaintance.

 I was telling him about the voter pledge cards that we’re using at the Museum and at my congregation, Baltimore Hebrew, and several other synagogues, churches, and now a mosque, throughout the region. This acquaintance of mine was surprised at the use of the cards. He wondered aloud if we should be engaging in such activities. He asked me if we weren’t crossing the line between church and state. At the time I told him “the separation of church and state means that the state can’t tell you how to church. It doesn’t mean the church has to pretend the state doesn’t exist.” I assured him that as long as we—either the congregation or the Museum—are ensuring that we are not telling people for whom to vote, only that they should vote for the candidate(s) of their choice, we are completely within the bounds of what we may do as non-profits. What I didn’t get into with him at the time is that not only are the 501(c)3 designations safe, we are tying into a long history of Jewish congregations and organizations celebrating and bolstering American democracy.  

These high holy days, I was reminded of that long tradition and decided to explore it. As I sat and stood and sat and stood beside my mother in the sanctuary that has been my religious home my entire life, one prayer stood out to me this year.  

“We pray for all who hold positions of leadership and responsibility in our national life. Let Your blessing rest upon them, and make them responsive to Your will, so that our nation may be to the world an example of justice and compassion. 

Deepen our love for our country and our desire to serve it. Strengthen our power of self-sacrifice for our nation’s welfare. Teach us to uphold its good name by our own right conduct.  

Cause us to see clearly that the well-being of our nation is in the hands of all its citizens; imbue us with zeal for the cause of liberty in our own land and in all lands; and help us always to keep our homes safe from affliction, strife, and war. Amen.” 

(This is from the older Reform Machzor, though there is a version of it in the Mishkan Tefillah, the prayerbooks adopted by the Reform movement over the past several years.) 

Not only did the synagogue (church) not pretend there was no state, we integrated a prayer for the state’s well-being into the liturgy of our holiest day. Like I said before, separation of church and state doesn’t mean non-acknowledgment between them.   

In the few days in the office between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, I found myself gazing at my framed copy of the “See America” poster of the Lloyd Street Synagogue. (I’ve written about the development of this poster before.) As I re-read the information on the poster about the creation of the LSS, it got me to thinking about the history of the Jewish participation in the American experiment, and, necessarily, that led me to the phrase “religious freedom.”  

The poster says, “The Baltimore Jewish community built its first synagogue in 1845. Made possible by the 1826 Maryland Jew Bill, the building stands as a reminder that the thread of religious freedom is woven into the fabric of the city, the state, and the United States.”

In the same way that “church and state” seemed to have morphed for this acquaintance of mine, it seems to me that “religious freedom” no longer means what it once did.  

Today, it seems “religious freedom” or “religious liberty” is used as an excuse to descriminate. But for my—and many of your—ancestors, “religious freedom” was the opposite of discrimination. It was the ticket to full Jewish participation in their new, American home.  

This was made very clear when we published our booklet “The ‘Maryland Jew Bill’ And the Struggle For Equal Treatment Under the Law.” While Amending America was here, we created this facsimile of many pages of our artifact, the 1819 pamphlet “Sketch of Proceedings in the Legislature of Maryland, December Session, 1818, on what is commonly called The Jew Bill.”

While working on that pamphlet, I read several early nineteenth-century essays in defense of religious freedom. The essayists included no less than Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, and the arguments suggested that the Enlightenment ideal of religious liberty insists that Jews should not be prohibited from full participation in our democratic process because of their religion. It was a non-Jew’s commitment to this ideal that led to the passage of what is known as the Jew bill here in Maryland. That legislation allowed, for the first time, Jews to hold public office— a role that had previously been unavailable due to the requirement of a Christian oath for public office.  

Let me repeat that: religious freedom demanded of nineteenth-century Americans that Jews not be prohibited from full participation in our democracy. In case you doubt the importance of that concept to our Jewish American foremothers and forefathers, I’d like to share this image:

This discovery of mine may be very familiar to any of you who grew up in a Reform Jewish home. This page spread is near the back of the Union Haggadah Revised—the Passover Haggadah published by the Reform movement in the 1923.

I recently came upon the page and was fascinated by this statue of religious liberty, paired as it was with the lyrics to America. The pedestal says “Religious Liberty. Dedicated to the People of the United States of America by the Order B’nai Brith and Israelites of America.” The figure appears to be a female warrior, sheltering a young boy and accompanied by an eagle. With a little research I realized I’d seen the statue before, as it is now in front of National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia. I further learned that this Lady Liberty holds the U.S. Constitution in her left hand, and the boy she protects carries a lantern representing religion. The eagle at her feet is clutching a serpent in its talons—a metaphor for democracy defeating tyranny. She was installed on Thanksgiving day 1876 as part of the commemoration of the country’s centennial.  

With all of these historic ideals, symbols, and realities of “religious freedom” resonating in my mind, contemporary news stories seem to be assaulting and insulting this Lady Liberty I never realized I knew.  

I recently saw an article about the baker at the center of the cake religious liberty case. For those of you who may have missed it, a commercial baker in Colorado refused to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. The couple sued. The case went to the Supreme Court, and the court ruled that the Colorado Civil Rights commission showed hostility to the baker based on his religious beliefs, since the baker claimed religious freedom was the reason he had chosen not to make the cake. Fairly recently, I saw that the same baker had again refused to bake a cake, this time for a transgender woman, once again claiming religious freedom as his defense.  

Especially now, as we celebrate Sukkot, that festival of radical hospitality, I pray the Religious Liberty our co-religionists put on a pedestal is returned to her former glory. She was the protector of the stranger, the guardian of the rights of citizenship and civil society. I do not believe she would take up arms to protect anyone’s right to refuse to interact with those who do not share their religious beliefs.  

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