The true meaning of religious freedom


Recently we have seen several states pass laws legalizing discrimination against the LGBT community and others in the name of “religious freedom.”  This is a terrible development, and it is all the more shocking that these discriminatory laws are being justified in the name of religion.  We have just begun looking forward to celebrating Pesah, the Festival of Freedom, and we learn from the Passover story what freedom is really about.  The Israelites suffer oppression under Egyptian bondage.  Again and again, they ask Pharaoh for their freedom, not for themselves, but so that they can serve God.  Pharaoh, of course, refuses, and only God’s metaphorical hand allows the Israelites to go free.  God is immediately concerned lest the Israelites use their new-found freedom to turn around and oppress others.  So God leads them to Mt. Sinai and gives them instruction – Torah – to teach them what their freedom really requires of them.  Chief among those requirements is the mitzvah to treat all humans as precious beings created in God’s image.  The Torah does not qualify this statement.  It does not limit its applicability to people with whom we agree or people we like, and it doesn’t even exclude those who may not like or agree with us.  We are not required to agree with our fellow human beings, and indeed, the cause of freedom often requires that we call out oppression when we see it.  But we are required to treat all human beings with respect.  Using the idea of religious freedom to justify discriminating against others perverts the meaning of freedom and the very idea of religion.  In the name of our history and our highest ideals, this is something we must struggle against.