My wife Laurie and I are the rabbis of Congregation Micah in Brentwood, Tennessee – a spiritual community that adopted the words of Micah (6:8), the Biblical prophet and civil rights advocate, as our congregation’s message of equality and welcome for all: “Do justly, love mercy, walk humbly with thy God.” The prophet’s words call us to fulfill our synagogue’s mission, as we are “committed to building community and repairing the world.”
Jewish communities all over the world are currently observing the sacred time of year called the High Holy Days. On Rosh Hashanah – the Jewish new year – we usually throw a Birthday Party for the World! This year, however, our spiritual community made the difficult decision to move our young children’s programming online. At Micah, we love kids! We see in them the future, and so we advocate on their behalf at all costs.
In January 2020, I wrote an op-ed in The Tennessean excoriating our governor and state senators for passing adoption legislation that, under the guise of religious freedom, clearly discriminates against the LGBTQ+ and Jewish communities. Sounding the alarm, child welfare advocates and religious and secular communities around the country have been mobilizing in support of two federal bills now working their way through Congress. One, the John Lewis Every Child Deserves a Family Act, would ensure that no taxpayer-funded child welfare agency can turn away qualified prospective parents or mistreat youth in foster care because of who they are, whom they love, or what they believe. Another, the Equality Act, would update the Civil Rights Act to establish basic protections for all LGBTQ+ Americans by prohibiting discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation in employment, housing, public accommodations, education, federal funding, credit, and the jury system.
After publishing my piece, I became aware of and a part of the national movement to protect the rights of LGBTQ+ people who are eager to provide safe and loving homes for vulnerable children in foster care systems. Most significantly, I am a proud member of the Interfaith Coalition for Children’s Rights, established in 2019 by a group of faith leaders working on behalf of children in foster care nationwide to combat proposed discriminatory legislation. The group is concerned about legislation and policies that expressly allow taxpayer-funded child welfare agencies to discriminate, based on their religious beliefs, against potential foster or adoptive parents – specifically LGBTQ+ couples. Some of the bills even permit discrimination against children. Using religion as justification, these laws deprive the hundreds of thousands of foster children among us of the chance to be welcomed into the homes they so desperately need.
This threat to children culminated in a June 2021 U.S. Supreme Court decision that the City of Philadelphia could not bar a Catholic child welfare agency that refused to work with same-sex couples from screening potential foster parents. The ruling allows that specific agency to use taxpayer funds to discriminate against LGBTQ+ couples in its work in Philadelphia. We were relieved that the decision did not give a broad license to discriminate to all agencies across the country, and, instead, confined its holding to the particular facts of that case. It was, however, deeply hurtful nonetheless, sending a message to LGBTQ+ children and adults that their rights are not protected and their identities are not valued.
The Supreme Court’s ruling drives home why we need federal laws to provide consistent anti-discrimination protections for all LGBTQ+ people. As Jews, we must speak out against any attempt to use a religious litmus test to undermine LGBTQ+ rights and call for permanent legal protections to secure those rights.
Reflecting on the meaning and promise of the High Holy Days, I invite all of us to work together with and on behalf of LGBTQ+ individuals to make sure no other taxpayer-funded agency is ever allowed to discriminate against them. Let’s work together to pass the Equality Act and the John Lewis Every Child Deserves a Family Act.