By Rabbi Peter Berg
Eight years ago, President Barack Obama celebrated America’s “patchwork heritage,” acknowledging the Jews, Christians and Muslims who form our country’s diverse beliefs and cultures. It is a delicate pattern that requires mutual respect and honor.
It is also a principle that reaches across the aisle. Not only did our nation celebrate the Martin Luther King holiday on Monday, Jan. 16, but we also recognized Religious Freedom Day.
President George H.W. Bush made the first Religious Freedom Day proclamation in 1993, encouraging the United States to continue championing religious liberty and tolerance around the world and to decry the “reprehensible persecution of ethnic and religious minorities, anti-Semitism, and other forms of religious bigotry.”
Nowadays that annual proclamation has become a plea for kindness and mercy. “Religious freedom” has become a term embraced by the most intolerant and least compassionate among us. Just last year the Georgia General Assembly passed a divisive and discriminatory religious freedom bill, which Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed. As a state and as a nation, we have lost our way.
It’s time for Georgia lawmakers to pass a comprehensive civil rights bill and protect all Georgians, including those in the LGBT community, from intimidation and discrimination.
In 2016 more than 200 religious freedom bills were introduced nationally. These laws open the door for discrimination in the name of religion. Lawmakers in several of those states, including Georgia, have committed to introducing similar bills in 2017.
We are in a trying time. There is an increased threat by misguided people of faith committing terrorist acts for what they feel is in the name of G-d. Tensions continue to increase as outdated ideals are rightfully challenged. But we cannot let fear and discomfort strip our freedoms.
Last year the Georgia legislature introduced “religious liberty” House Bill 757, a bill targeting marriage and employment rights. Deal heroically vetoed the bill, stating: “Our people work side by side without regard to the color of our skin or the religion we adhere to. We are working to make life better for our families and our communities.”
While we know that the legislature will not give up, we owe it to ourselves as a community and state to continue to fight and embrace the “patchwork heritage” and reality we live in today.
That is religious freedom.
Rabbi Peter Berg is the senior rabbi at The Temple.