Religious Freedom: More Important Than Sexual Freedom?

There’s nothing as educational—or aggravating—as monitoring the websites and listserves of anti-freedom activists.

Over the years, I’ve discussed Morality in Media, Parents Television Council, Abstinence Clearinghouse, Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, and many others committed to undermining America’s unique, life-affirming promises of secular liberty.

Their mission is bad enough (God-awful, you might say), but it’s extra-aggravating when they describe their work as defending Americans’ liberty. One such group is the Rutherford Institute, a 501(c)(3) (that means you and I subsidize it), which claims it’s “dedicated to the defense of civil liberties and human rights.”

Rutherford lawyers have cynically leaped to the defense of Rabbi Avraham Bernstein. A member of a fundamentalist Jewish sect, Bernstein has been holding weekly Shabbat and holiday services in his 4,000 square-foot suburban New Jersey home. Recently, Freehold Township informed him he was violating local zoning ordinances by operating a house of worship. According to Bernstein’s own intention, indeed he is.

Like many fundamentalist Christians, New Jersey’s ultra-Orthodox Jews seem to have little regard for the secular traditions—and laws—of their communities (some over 300 years old) or our country. With an average birth rate some 400% higher than the rest of New Jersey, they are rapidly gaining demographic and political power.

An excellent writer, Whitehead says that “Clearly, this rabbi has a constitutional right to gather with his loved ones to pray in the privacy of his own home. Furthermore, the government has no business monitoring the religious practices of individuals in the privacy of their homes. Nor should government officials be attempting to intimidate religious people into ceasing to worship as they please.”

I applaud Whitehead for clearly articulating each of these three points. But to pursue Rutherford’s mission consistently, he should be equally passionate about defending the rights of people to do other private things in a similar home.

What about people in the same New Jersey suburb inviting people over every Friday night to:
* make amateur porn films?
* have sex with each other?
* attend lectures promoting contraception and abortion?

And what about a group of unrelated adults living together in that house as a polyamorous family?

Whitehead and the Religious Right have historically denied that people have a right to these activities, because they’re “immoral.” He also claims that the freedom to practice religion is more important than the freedom to “just” have sex when and with whom you want it, or to “just” make porn films or to “just” distribute contraceptive information.

And that’s the problem with people who believe that religion should have a special place in American life. They really mean it. Somehow, believing in God is supposed to require the entire community to give you special privileges that you don’t get if you merely believe in Napoleon, the sun-god, or the Enlightenment.

So here’s what I want to hear from the Rutherford Institute:

“Clearly, this (rabbi) non-believer has a constitutional right to gather with his loved ones to (pray) have sex in the privacy of his own home. Furthermore, the government has no business monitoring the (religious) sexual practices of individuals in the privacy of their homes. Nor should government officials be attempting to intimidate (religious) non-monogamous or kinky people into ceasing to (worship) have sex as they please.”

When the Rutherford Institute says this about everyone’s rights as passionately as they defend Rabbi Bernstein’s rights, I’ll believe that they’re serious about “safeguarding the constitutional rights and religious freedoms of all Americans.” Until then, they’re just another right-wing group who believe that America is for believers.


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