By Rebecca Stapel-Wax

On Thursday, Jan. 21, in the Georgia legislature, Sen. Greg Kirk, R-Americus, introduced the fourth religious exemptions bill of the legislative session. His bill, called the First Amendment Defense Act, would allow publicly funded organizations across Georgia to claim religious exemptions from nondiscrimination laws and discriminate against same-sex couples.
It has been less than three weeks since the 2016 legislative session began, and legislators have introduced similar bills claiming to protect religious freedom: the Religious Freedom Restoration Act bill, S.B. 129, which was introduced in last year’s part of the session; H.B. 756, which would allow private businesses to discriminate against LGBT people; and its sister H.B. 757, the Pastor Protection Act, which would affirm already-safe First Amendment rights.

SOJOURN Executive Director Rebecca Stapel-Wax and Assistant Director Robbie Medwed read to Epstein School kindergartners.

SOJOURN Executive Director Rebecca Stapel-Wax and Assistant Director Robbie Medwed read to Epstein School kindergartners.

This is the third consecutive year that time, money and multiple resources have been devoted to an issue that is irrelevant. Georgia already has legitimate religious protections. However, these bills blatantly attempt to discriminate against gay and transgender people.

Georgians are often incredulous that our gay and transgender citizens can be fired, denied housing and lack access to health care simply because of who they are — and because Georgia has no statewide civil rights protections.

In other states we have seen the disastrous impact of this type of legislation. The convention industry and corporations take their money and talent elsewhere. At a time when our economy is of grave concern and there has been a tremendous movement toward gay and transgender equality, these efforts are baffling. And they are antithetical to the foundation of Judaism.

Last year 19 Atlanta-area rabbis attended rallies, wrote position papers and spoke from the pulpit because they were aghast that religion was being used to discriminate. There was not a rabbi in our city who endorsed this legislation.

In response to these proposed bills, Peter Berg, The Temple’s senior rabbi, recently sent out a communitywide email.

He wrote, I am a Rabbi and I stand squarely against any legislation that would permit people or businesses to use religion as an excuse to deny service, shelter, or employment to LGBT Georgians. … That gives religion a bad name.”

It might go without saying, but I am quite certain that when specific legislators consider their need for religious protection, they aren’t considering Jews. These bills are too reminiscent of the past of when portions of the community were targeted for being different from the dominant culture.

As Rabbi Berg referenced, one of our basic Jewish teachings is to treat others as you wish to be treated. We have a T-shirt emblem at SOJOURN with a twist on the Bible’s commandment; rather than “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18), we prefer to love our neighbors even if they are not like ourselves.

Almost everyone in our community knows and/or loves someone who is gay or transgender. We would never intentionally hurt them. That is why we can’t let this legislation pass.

Contact your representatives today. In practicing your freedom of speech and religion, insist that they represent your Jewish ethics and ideals. Let them know that you do not support discrimination.

Rebecca Stapel-Wax is the founding executive director of SOJOURN: The Southern Jewish Resource Network for Gender & Sexual Diversity.