Jewish ethics support the struggle to safeguard civil and religious liberties and to speak out with courage for their preservation. The Jewish community has been committed to defend those liberties for all religions, whether the majority or the minority. The Union of American Hebrew Congregations has long affirmed that religious freedom and the separation of church and state stand as the cornerstone of American democracy.
In 1990, the United States Supreme Court issued a ruling in Oregon Employment Division v. Smith that the State of Oregon could deny unemployment compensation benefits to drug rehabilitation counselors who were fired for the sacramental use of peyote in Native American religious ceremonies.
The Court’s surprisingly sweeping decision went far beyond the facts before it and in Smith discarded the longstanding test for evaluating whether a governmental action unconstitutionally interferes with a religious practice. For over 20 years, the accepted standard had required the government to prove that it had a “compelling interest” in enforcing a statute that restricted the free exercise of religion and that it has used the least restrictive means to further that interest. The court’s ruling represents a radical break with established First Amendment jurisprudence.
The Smith decision could curtail our religious freedom. For example, it could jeopardize the use of ceremonial wine, kosher slaughtering, zoning exemptions for synagogues, the right of Jews to wear religious garments like yarmulkes or the rights of students not to wear clothing such as gym uniforms they believe are immodest and to take time off for religious holidays.
A bipartisan initiative in the United States House of Representative has put forth the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1991 (RFRA) to restore the protections for the free exercise of religion to the standard that exited prior to the Smith decision.
THEREFORE, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations resolves to:
- Reaffirm its conviction that the separation of church and state is the bulwark of religious freedom.
- Call upon the United States Congress to reaffirm the constitutional protection of religious freedom of all Americans by passing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1991.
- Call upon its congregational leadership to work for the passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act by requesting meetings with their members of Congress about the importance of this issue to the Jewish community and asking them to serve as co-sponsors and support this legislation.