The Civil Rights Act of 1964 brought light to many dark places in American society. It was most famous for opening businesses and institutions which operated in public to members of all races. Less well known were its provisions which prevented discrimination on the basis of sex, creed, national origin, and religion. In the matter of discrimination in the workplace, the act clearly places responsibility for establishing a work environment free of harassment on the operator of the business. Court decisions later established that employers needed to make themselves aware of harassment of minorities in the workplace, that their toleration of such harassment made them liable to penalties and prosecution under the law, that their encouragement of such harassment would lose them federal business.
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The far-reaching consequences of the Civil Rights Act can be seen most clearly in the election of Barack Obama to the Presidency. Unlike Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, Obama’s appreciation for the role that the Civil Rights Act played in providing him with opportunities — for his education, for his advancement, for political career, for his being taken seriously as a human being — has always been open and straightforward. Obama’s recent interpretation of the Affordable Care Act — to guarantee that employees of religious institutions who were not themselves members of management’s religious faith were able to practice the tenets of the employees’ own faith, without the intimidation, coercion, and harassment of the employer’s religious restrictions on those employees — is something that Jews in particular should be grateful to their friend in the White House, who stuck up for our rights.
The Catholic Church has taken the mission of the Civil Rights Act, and stood it on its head. It is not the big bad government imposing free practice of religion on the helpless Catholic institutions — who employ followers of Judaism, the Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ, Unitarianism, Muslims, Buddhists, Farsis, Hindus and others whose religious beliefs may differ from the Church — not just in matters of contraception, or about when life begins and ends, or about the relative importance of the lives of a woman and her fetus before childbirth. It is in fact the big bad government which has allowed such Catholic institutions to flourish and prosper, tax free, as they compete with for-profit hospitals, even as the Church provides right-to-life demonstrators at secular institutions to increase their costs of doing business. It is rather these powerful institutions who now influence the votes of our Senators Toomey and Casey — who both voted for the Blunt Amendment this past week. It is these powerful institutions, who demand exception from having to provide a harassment-free workplace for their employees, on the grounds that their employees’ free practice of religion offends management’s religious moral sensibility.
I have had to remind some friends, who were not alive at the time of the Civil Rights Movement, that some white churches in the South justified their practice of segregation on religious grounds. Such churches encouraged “Knights” to act in their defense. As government contemplated the Civil Rights Act, these churches too claimed that the government would intrude on their members’ freedom of religion. Many South African white members of the Dutch Reformed Church also justified their apartheid regime, by appealing to their interpretation of scripture, and to the teachings of their church. The coercive use of religious doctrine is not of course confined just to racial segregation and racist governments.
At this time of Purim, where we celebrate the resourcefulness of Mordechai and Esther in proclaiming their Judaism, and attempt to drown out with groggers the name of he who tried to exterminate our people for attempting to practice our basic Covenant, I would urge my compatriots to support their own civil rights, and to support the Obama position on the universal support for women’s health care services — to be exercised as the employee and not the employer sees fit, and to prevent religious harassment in the workplace from being justified, by a sense of freedom which treats the religious freedom of neighbors as if some of us were only “guests” in a Christian Nation.