I’ve been thinking about religion a lot lately. As a Jew, I’m celebrating the High Holidays this week, and as the Jewish mom of a 12-year-old boy, I’m looking forward to the start of a year that includes his bar mitzvah preparation. As a lesbian mom, however, I look at what is being done in the name of religion to thwart LGBTQ equality, and I shudder.
I’m Jewish, but my spouse comes from a liberal Christian tradition. We chose to join a very progressive Reform Jewish congregation near us, where we had friends, and to have our son attend the children’s classes there. We like that he spends several structured hours each week discussing what it means to be a moral person, how to be a responsible part of one’s community and how we can help repair the many injustices of our world. Additionally, we wanted to instill some sense of the Jewish cultural tradition, something lacking in our mostly Christian town. We also attend Christmas services at a local church and go to services with my spouse’s family when we visit them, wanting to give our son exposure to her heritage as well.
I struggle to talk about the benefits of religion to my son, however, when I hear news about people like Kim Davis. Davis, as you likely know by now, is the elected town clerk in Rowan County, Ky., who made headlines when she stopped issuing marriage licenses to anyone, rather than issue them to same-sex couples. Doing so would violate her religious convictions, she said. She refused to comply even after a federal judge demanded she do so and the U.S. Supreme Court refused to stay that order, and even after she served jail time.
If Davis feels her religion prevents her from enabling same-sex couples to marry, that’s her right — but only as a private citizen. As a public employee, she must uphold the laws in our secular nation.
Davis is just the tip of a larger iceberg, however. Twenty-one states currently have laws that allow religious exemptions to their laws, according to a recent report from the Movement Advancement Project (MAP). In 2015, 17 more state legislatures have introduced bills to do the same. In contrast to federal religious-exemption law, which requires a person wanting such an exemption to show a “substantial” burden on their religious exercise, some states permit a person to demonstrate much less of a burden before being exempted. This potentially allows the refusal of almost any service or employment.
Children bear the impact of these “religious-freedom” laws as well, most notably because some of the laws specifically allow discrimination in foster care and adoption by private agencies. While private, they are nonetheless contracted with the state to place children who are in the state’s care, and they receive public funds.
Virginia, North Dakota and Michigan have enacted laws allowing these agencies to discriminate against any parents or children if serving them would violate the agency’s written moral or religious beliefs — for example, if they are LGBTQ or of a faith tradition with which the agency disagrees. Texas, Florida and Alabama tried but failed to pass similar laws this year.
Even the broad religious-exemption laws of other states, not specific to adoption, could be used to deny adoption and foster-care services to LGBTQ children and LGBTQ potential parents, MAP analyst Heron Greenesmith told me in an interview.
If otherwise qualified LGBTQ people are blocked from adopting, or hesitate to pursue adoption for fear of being refused, far fewer children will find loving homes. Agencies could also decline to work with children who are LGBTQ themselves. Doing this in the name of religion, as I see it, violates the commitment to caring for children that most religions promote.
That brings me back to my personal location in all this. I don’t consider myself a particularly observant person, and I don’t believe one needs to follow a religion to be a good person. I feel that while religion can be a force for much wrongdoing, it can also be a force for good. It’s not a matter of one religion or denomination versus another, but of the very broad tenets that unite us — like love, peace and consideration for others, particularly those less fortunate. I’d like my son to believe in those tenets, whatever religious practices he chooses to follow (or not) as he gets older.
He’s of an age, though, where even if I don’t say anything to him, he’s likely to be on the Internet or in school and come across some mention of Davis’ actions, anti-LGBTQ protesters with “God Hates Fags” signs or similar religious-based bias. I can only hope to help him see them for what they are — expressions of an individual or small group of individuals. This year, as he prepares for his bar mitzvah, I’m sure he as well as I will be thinking even more about what it means to be a person of faith. I don’t want those who use it for hate to spoil it for him.
Dana Rudolph is the founder and publisher of Mombian (mombian.com), a GLAAD Media Award-winning blog and resource directory for LGBTQ parents.