Saturday, May 23, 2015

How I understand RFRAs (Religious Freedom Restoration Acts)

I started writing this post when lots of states were trying to pass Religious Freedom Restoration Acts. Then Indiana got smacked down and the issue seemed to go away...for awhile. It's back, in Louisiana, so I'm dusting off this blog post. Yet another chance to offend readers, yay.....

Proponents of RFRAs use the example of a kosher deli being required to sell a ham sandwich. This example is not accurate.

Kosher delis don't sell ham sandwiches. To ANYONE. And if they DID sell a ham sandwich to one person, then yes, the public accomodation law requires them to sell ham sandwiches to EVERYONE.

But let's go with the kosher deli example for awhile and see where an RFRA would take us.

You go into a kosher deli and ask for some pastrami. The deli is doing a brisk business in pastrami that day. But the deli owner refuses to sell it to you because you told him you were going to put it in a Reuben sandwich, which has cheese on it, and mixing meat and cheese is against the deli owner's religion.

You are shocked at his refusal. You think, what does that have to do with MY sandwich? Having meat with cheese is not against MY religion. Once I pay for it, it's my pastrami and I can do whatever I want with it. I could make a Lady Gaga meat dress out of it if I felt like it. It's none of his business what I do with that pastrami in the privacy of my own home. His job is only to sell me the damn pastrami, and there's no reason his religion should come between me and my sandwich.

I mean, it sounds a little crazy, right? That YOU can't be sold an item because your intended use of that item is against the business owner's religion? It's not like you're asking HIM to eat the sandwich or even be in the same room when YOU eat it. He's not participating in your lunch.

But let's put that aside for now.

You're a regular, non-litigious person, you don't like fights, and you believe a business owner has a right not to serve whomever he wants. So you leave the store, planning to get your pastrami elsewhere. No point in causing a fuss because one particular store owner is being weird,

Only it turns out, that deli's pastrami is SOOO good that every other deli, grocery store, and butcher shop in town has realized it can't compete and therefore has stopped selling pastrami. The only place that carries it within a 50-mile radius is the store that refuses to sell it to you.

So you don't get pastrami, big deal. You can make your Reuben with corned beef.

But it turns out the deli also has cornered the market on corned beef. And on roast beef. And on turkey and chicken. They don't sell pork products, but everyone in town is on a health kick and stopped buying pork, so stores stopped selling it. The only store in town selling any kind of meat is the deli.

That's okay. You've been meaning to try a vegetarian diet anyway.

But while you were driving around town looking for corned beef, the local grocery store went out of business. And the deli, making money hand-over-fist because of their excellent meat selection, has purchased the supermarket. The owner refuses to let you buy anything from the supermarket. Doing business with those who eat meat and cheese together in the same sandwich would be condoning that abominable and unhealthy lifestyle.

Well, now, this is getting a little inconvenient. You think about taking the owner to court, forcing him to sell you lunch meat, but you have no case. People who eat meat and cheese together are not a Federally protected class, and they're not protected by the state or local governments, either.

You consider lying, telling him  you've given up putting cheese on your meat sandwiches. You could actually stop eating meat and cheese together in the same sandwich. I mean, it's a choice, right? No one is BORN eating meat and cheese sandwiches. You have to be taught how to make a Reuben. And yes, it's not the healthiest food in the universe.

But if you're an adult, why not be able to make a sandwich without needing the acceptance of the business owner who is selling you the ingredients? It's your life. If you want to clog your arteries, that should be your choice.

You start to order your food from websites and soon your fridge is stocked with all the pastrami, swiss cheese, sauerkraut, and Russian dressing you can handle. Life is good. Until a knock comes on the door....

The deli owner, who has just purchased your apartment complex, doesn't mean to harass you. He's sure you're a very nice person and has nothing against you or your kind. It's just that your meat-and-cheese eating lifestyle is such an abomination in his eyes. It goes against his sincerely held religious beliefs to stand by and allow someone to do that on his property. It's practically the same as if HE  were the one eating meat and cheese. So you have two weeks to vacate the premises.

It's getting hard to believe that he only hates meat-and-cheese sandwiches and not you.

You find a new apartment, stock your new fridge with pastrami and swiss cheese, and settle in. You're a little short on cash due to the security deposit and the shipping costs for the pastrami, but you'll make that up with your next paycheck. But the next day your supervisor calls you into his office. Turns out the deli has gone conglomerate and purchased your company. And the sandwiches you bring into the office (and consume at home in your off-time) are an offense to the new owner's religious sensibilities. No one else in the company feels the need to eat that sort of thing, especially not in public. To continue to employ you would be like condoning your lifestyle. You are let go with a generous severance package.

It's only a matter of time before your new apartment is bought up by the deli owner or one of his friends, so you spend the next two weeks using up all the Reuben sandwich ingredients in your fridge and packing your belongings, and then you leave town. As you drive away, you begin to wonder if that was actually the point of whole game: to get you to move away so the townspeople could have a "nice" community with no "undesirables". You may never know, but it doesn't matter. You're already on your way out.


Okay, yeah, that was a worst-case scenario. But we need to understand that these RFRA laws do not protect religious minorities from discrimination by the majority -- that's what the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does. RFRAs protect the majority from having to serve a member of an "undesirable" minority group. An RFRA means that if someone wanted to do all those things in the scenario above, they could, and face no legal repercussions.

The slimiest thing about these RFRA laws is their timing. It's not a coincidence that they're popping up in every state with a Republican-majority legistlature. They're the product of anti-gay groups and intended as a pre-enptive strike if the Supreme Court rules for marriage equality in June, so business owners can "practice their religion" by turning away gay couples.

Most business owners just want to run their businesses and make money, which, after all, is the point of business. Many state legislatures saw the epic backlash Indiana has experienced after passing their RFRA and are now backtracking from their plan to pass an RFRA. Many, but not all. So in the words of Mad-eye Moody, "Constant Vigilance!" We must call out these RFRAs for what they are -- not protections for religion, but licenses to discriminate. And that's unacceptable in the 21st century.

~ end rant! ~

BTW, I make an awesome fake reuben with no pastrami at all because I stopped eating meat a few years ago. (I do put meat in the DH's sandwich if I remember to get some.) Saute red peppers and sweet onions, then slightly dry out the sauerkraut in the pan when the peppers and onions are done (or at the end of the sauteing time). Layer swiss cheese (and somestimes cheddar, too) and the other ingredients on bread one kind of mustard, then another layer of cheese, then the top piece of bread with a second kind of mustard. No butter or oil on the outside, and no Russian dressing inside, so it's healthy! (Pay no attention to the four pounds of cheese....)

[subject line edited on 3/18/2016]

Sunday, May 17, 2015

HAHBAT post: What the Torah says about The Gay -- straight from the rabbi's mouth

I've mentioned this anecdote in lots of different places, but I'll give it a permanent place here, then in the future I can just be lazy and post a link. :) And since the topic is homophobia, I decided it would make a good post for the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia.

Badge for the Hop Against Homophobia, Bi-, and Transphobia

Plus I had it partially written, and have I mentioned I'm lazy? :)

Okay, hang on to your hats; it's about to get Biblical up in here.

People who don't believe in same-sex marriage and/or civil rights for gay people like to quote verse 20:13 from Leviticus to explain why The Gay is a bad thing. (These people generally tend to ignore everything ELSE in the Bible that's described as a bad thing.)

Verse 20:13 (and verse 18;22, which says basically the same thing), were written in Hebrew, as was the rest of the Torah (Old Testament). When people study to become rabbis, even Reform rabbis, they learn to read the Torah in the original language. Our temple's rabbi talked about that passage of Leviticus one year at Yom Kippur services when he said that if a same-sex couple came to him to get married, he would perform the ceremony.

A picture I used in last year's HAHAT, but it's just so pretty, I'm going to use it again. :)

The rabbi explained that the word usually translated as "abomination" does not actually have such a strongly proscriptive meaning in in Hebrew. A better English translation of that word ("toevah") would be "something we Jews do not do."

While researching my as-yet-unfinished pirate novel, I learned a little bit about homosexuality in Islamic cultures. In most Mediterranean cultures, going back thousands of years, men have had (and do have) sex with men, both before and after marriage to women. We know about Greek Love and the "snails and oysters" scene from Spartacus.

Oddly enough, the ancient Hebrews did not follow this custom. I don't know why; maybe it was considered disrespectful to one's wife to go off and have sex with teenaged boys? Or maybe the men were all just "ew, homosex is icky"?

Whatever the reason, it seems clear to me that a more accurate translation of those Leviticus passages would be "men having sex with men is something we Jews do not do." Looking at the history of the region, everyone else did have that custom; the Jews simply did not. And that is reflected in the Torah.

(As for using even this interpretation to decry today's same-sex relationships, keep in mind that people had a LOT of customs back then that no one does anymore. Killing a bullock and offering it up as a burnt sacrifice in your suburban backyard? I think you'd get a visit from the police....)

In an online discussion once, a commenter told me my rabbi was "aspostate" (a disbeliever, one who has renounced their faith) for offering up this translation of the Leviticus verse. IMO, it's UNBELIEVABLY arrogant to declare someone else's interpretation of a Bible verse invalid because it disagrees with yours. Not only do people not agree on what the Bible means, some people can't even agree on which Bible to use.

So the next time someone claims that the Leviticus verse justifies homophobia, feel free to direct them to this blog post. Or to tell them, "That translation is not accurate." Or to tell them they have their head up their ass, but that probably won't change hearts or minds. :)

Thank you for letting me participate in this year's Hop Against Homophobia, Bi-, and Transphobia! Please comment for a chance to win... well, I'm not sure what you'll win. What would you like to win? An e-copy of one of my books? (Available for any of them except Dorm Porn 2; that's only in paperback.) A $20 donation in your name to Atlanta's LGBT youth shelter, Lost-n-Found? Some other LGBT-related prize worth up to $20? Please let me know in the comments. I really have no idea what would be good.

Thanks for reading!