Lynn Schusterman, a passionate philanthropic leader in the American Jewish community, has called upon Jewish organizations to adopt policies that will foster greater inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered Jews in the community.
In a recent piece published in these pages, Schusterman asked Jewish organizations to join her foundation "in adopting non-discrimination hiring policies that specifically mention sexual orientation ... ," challenged other foundations and donors in the Jewish community to join her in "holding organizations accountable for doing so," and said her foundation "will only consider funding" groups that have non-discrimination policies covering sexual orientation and gender identity.
While the value of including all Jews within the community is important, Schusterman's proposal, if implemented, would include some Jews by virtue of excluding others and trample upon a value that is at least as important to American Jewry -- religious liberty.
Schusterman is free to allocate her private foundation's funds as she wishes, but she's overlooked the fact that many synagogues and day schools run under Orthodox auspices or the auspices of other "traditional" views cannot embrace homosexual activity as legitimate, a perspective based upon clear teachings of Jewish law and tradition going back to the Bible.
Thus an Orthodox institution cannot adopt a policy that recognizes a person's "sexual orientation" as a feature with the same status as their race or gender without violating its principles. And the coercion of such an institution to adopt such a policy would be a violation of its religious liberty and intolerant of its beliefs.
In that last point lies an irony of Schusterman's call to action. In her essay, she cites an effort last year in which thousands of Jews lobbied Congress for the passage of pending gay rights laws, including the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would outlaw workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The irony is that the act contains an explicit exemption for religious institutions, such as synagogues and day schools, from its coverage.
My organization, together with Christian representatives, negotiated this exemption with proponents of gay rights in the workplace, led by U.S. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, with the blessing of the Human Rights Campaign, Rabbi David Saperstein of the Reform movement, the Anti-Defamation League and other gay rights advocates. They realized that an exemption for religious employers is a necessary balancing of civil rights for gays and the religious liberties of sectarian institutions.
Saperstein expressed this best in testimony before Congress. "It is clear that within our nation's diversity of faith traditions, there are, however, differing views about homosexuality," he told the lawmakers. "Every faith is entitled to its own interpretation of its holy texts, and every individual is entitled to believe in a way of his or her own choosing."
Legislation "that did not permit houses of worship, seminaries, religious schools and other religious organizations to be guided by the tenets and teachings that embody the essence of their faith would break with our country's long-standing tradition of religious freedom."
The religious exemption, Saperstein said later, "protects the right of religious communities to make their own employment decisions in this sensitive area."
Schusterman, in the private sphere, would champion gay rights over religious liberty without even acknowledging the competing values, let alone trying to strike some balance. If taken to its logical conclusion, Schusterman's proposal would result in Orthodox institutions being excluded from Jewish community support by having them denied funding from Jewish foundations and, one presumes, federations.
This not only would inflict real harm upon many underfunded schools and charities and those they serve, it would drive a wedge in the heart of those institutions designed to bring our diverse community together.
The Orthodox Union is on record supporting initiatives that seek to ensure principles of tolerance, anti-discrimination and the fair treatment of all citizens. A hallmark of such initiatives is that they are balanced and do not expand some rights at the expense of others.
Schusterman and others who seek inclusion for gays in the Jewish community must strike this balance, too, if their real goal is liberty and justice for all.
Nathan Diament is the director of the Institute for Public Affairs of the Orthodox Union.