03/05/2014 12:23 pm ET Updated May 05, 2014

The Religious Right to Discriminate?

There are many benefits to living in Arizona, but one of them is certainly not the recent bill that proposed to allow discrimination on the basis of religious freedom. Bill 1062, had it passed, would have allowed businesses to reject service to any customer based on the owners' religious beliefs. The bill included:

'Exercise of religion' means the practice or observance of religion, including the ability to act or refusal to act in a manner substantially motivated by a religious belief whether or not the exercise is compulsory or central to a larger system of religious belief.

Many considered this legislation a strategy to legalize discrimination against LGBT individuals. Senate Democratic Leader Anna Tovar stated:

SB 1062 permits discrimination under the guise of religious freedom. With the express consent of Republicans in this Legislature, many Arizonans will find themselves members of a separate and unequal class under this law because of their sexual orientation. This bill may also open the door to discriminate based on race, familial status, religion, sex, national origin, age or disability.

Thankfully there was great pressure put upon Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, who has gained notoriety for her extreme comments and policies regarding undocumented immigrants, and she vetoed the bill. She vetoed a similar bill last year, largely because it would have undoubtedly hurt the state financially through boycotts and rerouting of conferences and conventions to other states -- a message that has not been lost on the state's business community. Even Republican Jeff Flake, one of Arizona's Senators and a staunch conservative, urged the governor to veto the bill.

This development may be seen as the latest in a series of extreme reactions that began with the election of President Barack Obama, the nation's first African-American President, in 2008, with opposition to virtually any legislation or policy moves taken by the administration, regardless of whether they were ideas promoted by either the Democratic or Republican party. Then last year, the Supreme Court overturned federal opposition to gay marriage, and the federal government subsequently recognized gay marriages in terms of government benefits. Since then, lawsuits have been filed in about three-quarters of the 33 states that currently ban gay marriage. The ban has already been overturned in Utah, Oklahoma and Virginia, and more are bound to follow in rapid succession. So far, Utah and Oklahoma have appealed the rulings overturning the marriage ban. Furthermore, within the past weeks, Americans were witness to the first openly gay professional basketball player and the first openly gay man trying to be drafted by a professional football team; undoubtedly, these historic achievements for gay athletes have severely shocked the traditional hyper-masculine and conservative athletic world.

Not surprisingly, these rapid changes to the status quo have been followed by reactionary legislative action. Republicans in Arizona, Hawaii, Idaho, Kansas, Mississippi, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota and Tennessee have introduced legislation that either directly or indirectly would allow businesses to discriminate against the LGBT community. Among the most aggressive is South Dakota, whose law proposes:

Section 2. No person or entity may bring suit against a business for refusing to serve a person or couple based on sexual orientation. The Legislature finds that businesses are private and that their views on sexual orientation are protected to the same extent as the views of private citizens.

No private business may be compelled to employ a person based on sexual orientation. The Legislature finds that any federal recognition of any specific sexual orientation as a protected class does not apply in South Dakota and may not be enforced within the geographical boundaries of South Dakota. It should be noted that only the Arizona law has thus far passed a state legislature.

Unfortunately such oppressive and hateful responses to minority progress is nothing new, in fact we have seen similar events in the past. In the 1920s, for example, the United States became a majority urban nation, women had the right to vote, and jazz and opposition to Prohibition flourished in the cities. In the countryside, however, Americans turned to Nativism, with unprecedented support for the Ku Klux Klan (which now combined hatred of Catholics and Jews with its traditional hatred of blacks), Christian fundamentalism (the banning of evolution in the schools) and immigration restriction. When people do not comprehend change, they often become fearful, and engage in extreme oppositional behaviors and political actions.

The United States is not alone in extreme anti-gay measures. Russia passed a notorious anti-gay agenda in 2013, and the President of Uganda signed a law on February 24 that provides severe prison sentences for anyone who is gay. Incredibly, the justification for many of these laws (along with religion) is that the LGBT community exists only in the West and is unduly influencing the rest of the world. Shockingly many assert that true non-Western societies do not have gay people, thus justifying severe punishments for LGBT people. One of the more notorious examples of this belief system was the absurd statement from the bellicose former President of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who told an American audience in 2007 that, "In Iran, we don't have homosexuals, like in your country." Similarly, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, upon signing his country's anti-gay legislation stated, "No study has shown you can be homosexual by nature." These kinds of ignorant and terrible statements reflect the level of bigotry and discrimination that the global LGBT community has been enduring for countless years. These kinds of attitudes and political actions have no place in civil society and must be stopped, especially here in the United States.

Fortunately, many religious leaders have boldly objected to the spurious use of religion to justify bigotry and discrimination. At the core of religion is a celebration of human dignity, uniqueness and diversity. Each person in his and her own way is created in the image of the Divine. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote:

Until we make theological space for the other, people will continue to hate in the name of the God of love, practice cruelty in the name of the God of compassion, wage war in the name of the God of peace, and murder in the name of the God of life. That is the greatest theological challenge of the 21st century, (Future Tense, 83).

We must encourage our leaders and those around the world to refrain from using religion as a device to enforce discrimination and oppression on other human beings. Let us begin here, at home, and rally to tell our political leaders that legislation, like Bill 1062 in Arizona, should never pass, for the so-called free exercise of religious freedom or any other reason. As Americans we all have the right to be treated equally under the law and legalizing discrimination under the guise of respecting religious freedom is an abomination to our Constitution and to religion. I urge all my fellow Arizonans, and residents of states proposing similar legislation, to stand with the LGBT community and mightily oppose discrimination.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder &President of Uri L'Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V'Aretz Institute and the author of "Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century." Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America."