One of the first religious experiences I had as a teenager seeking a spiritual teenager was attending a Reform Jewish temple in St. Joseph, Missouri. The temple’s members were mainly elderly people, steeped not only in Jewish religious memory but also in memories of the local community’s past. The first time I attended the temple, one of its members told a story, over cake and punch, of a time in the 1940s when the synagogue was attended by a then-famous entertainer named Eddie “Rochester” Anderson. Mr. Anderson, an African-American, was part of the cast of the Jack Benny radio program and had come to town as part of a tour promoting it. The nicest hotel in town, the Hotel Robidoux, had refused him a room because of his race. A trained monkey was traveling with the tour, and the Hotel Robidoux apparently had no objections to the monkey staying in the hotel—just to a man whose skin happened to be black.
In a weird way, the story seems so simple, the injustice so flagrant that no enlightened person could defend the hotel’s acts. Moreover, the harm done to Mr. Anderson, not just emotionally but also materially, was easy to understand. In the days when African-Americans were so uncertain of being able to access basic services like hotel rooms when they traveled that a special travel guide existed to guide them to black-owned or at least nondiscriminatory businesses, it was easy to identify the injustice that must be blotted out.
When I read of recent efforts by some states to pass “religious liberty” laws upholding the rights of wedding vendors to refuse services on religious grounds, I am almost nostalgic for that kind of simplicity, because the questions arising from controversies over recently-passed or proposed religious liberty laws are not nearly as black-and-white. In attempting to establish my own views, it also does not help that several different identities pull me in different directions. As a gay man, I am appalled by the idea of a business refusing service to someone because of sexual orientation and sympathize with gay and lesbian couples who have sued wedding vendors who deny them service. As a Jew, however, I find myself divided. “Justice, justice, you shall pursue” is, for some Jews, the most important mitzah (commandment) in the whole Torah. But other aspects of Jewish tradition—not just the verses in Leviticus and elsewhere that have traditionally been used to justify anti-gay attitudes in Judaism—take me in a different direction. Halakha (traditional Jewish law) considers marriage between Jews and non-Jews not merely to be religiously proscribed but null and void. Should American law require a kosher baker to provide services to interfaith weddings, against the dictates of faith and conscience, or a Christian bookstore to sell Bibles to someone who announces his intention to burn them? Committed religious pluralists, regardless of faith, would probably say no. Where should the line be drawn, and who gets to say? And what do we do when someone claims religion as a reason to deny someone service?
Well, in one sense, of course, the answer is our elected officials and the judiciary, who get to decide what constitutes a public accommodation and whether Hobby Lobby has to pay for its female employees’ birth control pill or a baker has to provide a gay wedding cake. In another sense, however, the answer is in us. Solutions to questions like this may lie in deepening our religious literacy, in understanding why a particular vendor may have religious objections to providing a product or service a customer wants. It would also go a long way in helping the public to understand that religious conscience is not always, or even usually, a smokescreen for bigotry of the kind that denied Rochester Anderson a hotel room. One of the greatest problems caused by the American public’s long slide into religious illiteracy is its tendency to give many people the impression that religion is or ought to be something akin to a hobby—something one does for an hour or two on Sunday morning but without consequences for how one lives in the outside world. For many believers, whatever their faith, “religious activity” may well encompass such seemingly profane activities as baking and selling cakes. This is perhaps the most important lesson to come out of the debate over “religious liberty” laws. Whether it is one the public will learn remains to be seen.