In Good Faith – Guest Column
By Rabbi Michael Bernstein
On Jan. 28 I visited the Georgia Capitol to talk with my state representative about the House bill commonly referred to as RFRA, Georgia’s version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. In that same week, the Capitol saw many public demonstrations and private conversations in support or opposition to the bill.
The battle lines have been drawn, for the most part in familiar places. Supporters tend to highlight that the proposed Preventing Government Overreach on Religious Expression Act (H.B. 29) protects the rights of the religious and does not impinge too much on the lives of anyone else. Opposition to the bill emphasizes that the measure would legalize discrimination, especially against those whose sexuality, gender identity or expression is deemed forbidden by another’s beliefs.
As a Conservative rabbi and what is often called “a person of faith,” I feel strongly that this proposed legislation is harmful, and I expressed to my state representative that whatever one believes personally about the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) individuals, there are still good reasons to oppose the bill.
The fear of government overreach into people’s personal lives, a powerful reason given by some of the bill’s supporters, is not something to be taken lightly. However, for me, the effect of Georgia’s current denial of the legality of same-sex marriages affects my own religious life greatly.
As a Conservative Jew, I have seen great scholars of Jewish law struggle with how to understand the holiness of a loving relationship between two men or two women or a family that is built on these relationships. My inspiration to become a rabbi, however, came hand in hand with a strong sense that Jewish teachings of the holiness of sexuality and recognition of the image of the divine in every human being had to point toward fully including and celebrating loving relationships across the spectrum of human sexuality and gender.
I became a Conservative rabbi despite the fact that the movement’s official policies at the time did not reflect my own support of gay men and lesbians becoming rabbis and being recognized in marriage. However, I believed that the Conservative movement would embrace this position, as it now has. I have had the honor of performing same-sex weddings in Massachusetts and elsewhere.
Now, however, despite my religious beliefs and the official permission of my religious institutions, I am told by the state of Georgia that weddings I would perform according to my faith would be considered invalid.
And I am, of course, not alone. Many Christian, Jewish and other religious leaders represent branches of our faiths that recognize and sanctify same-sex unions in matrimony. In this way, I believe that commitment to religious freedom, as well as freedom to act according to conscience, would call for supporting state recognition of same-sex marriage rather than legislation that would allow only certain religious beliefs to hold sway over the way others live their lives.
Freedom is a powerful value without which our country’s greatest achievements would be meaningless. For me, what Jewish tradition teaches us about freedom is that it goes hand in hand with the respect for human dignity and the call to be holy that are core values of our Torah. The continuing recognition and support for all, regardless of how and whom they love and regardless of how they identify and express their gender, is for me a vital part of living in good faith.
Rabbi Michael Bernstein is the spiritual leader of Congregation Gesher L’Torah in Alpharetta.