By: Sarah Casteel | Opinions  | 

Letter to the Editor: Sarah Casteel

To the Editor:

I recently read an article titled “Vote for Me, Vote for You, Vote for Who?” on your website.  It was written by a fellow member of the College Republicans and friend of mine.

While I objectively agree with some concerns the article has about the Democratic Party, I find myself deeply disturbed and upset by many of its claims, and feel it necessary to respond. The article's take on the issue of religious freedom is highly oversimplified. It pits religious freedom against LGBT rights, using a particular Supreme Court case as evidence which ultimately leads to an egregious and fear mongering conclusion: “Jews, be warned. Understand that the Democrats don’t care about your religious freedom and they are preparing to take it away in favor of civil rights for others.” The article claims openly that these “others” — in this case the LGBT community — should lose out on their civil rights because ours take precedent. I cannot disagree more with this sentiment.

In response to this article, it is my hope to convey that religious freedom does not have to be, on a Jewish nor on a Constitutional level, threatened by groups for whom expressions of various rights may appear to conflict. I also want to open a conversation in Yeshiva University and Orthodox communities at large about how we talk about and deal with LGBT issues. I write this letter for myself, as a member of the College Republicans (although I identify more strongly with the term “conservative”), but also for the LGBT community of Yeshiva University (many of whom I consider close friends), and for Jewish people as a whole.  

In an attempt to warn us about a crisis for our religious freedom, the article brings up the idea that “some people’s rights impede on the rights of others.” It says that Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi “demean[s] religious freedom by referring to it as a ‘guise’ while stating that liberties associated with sexual orientations should take priority over religious liberties.” It is both true and inevitable that a person’s expression of their own rights has the potential to impede on the rights of others, even perhaps in this case of the conflict between religious freedom and LGBT rights; but this does not mean, as the article asserts, that only one or the other should have the opportunity to express their rights in any given conflicting circumstance.  

Again, I agree that the Democratic Party puts too little value on religious freedom and threatens democracy by putting different weights on different rights. However, the article advocates for the same idea in the opposite: that religious liberty should trump basic civil liberties of LGBT people. I understand that these two things may appear to conflict, but I have no doubt that the Framers of the Constitution understood this inevitable conflict when they wrote the Constitution. I have no doubt that there is a solution for it and that the solution is certainly not to pick one or the other.

The inalienable rights that the Framers enumerated, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” are not explicitly expounded upon in the Constitution. As Americans dedicated to upholding this democracy, it is our job to take a look at what these rights look like, and to ensure that they are protected for every person. As a conservative, I see it as my job to explain why religious freedom does not take precedence over every American’s right to life, liberty and their own pursuit of happiness.  

The article uses the Supreme Court case Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission as a primary piece of evidence for its argument that religious liberty is the ultimate priority in the interpretation and upholding of the Constitution. Here’s my question: seeing as the Framers included the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” in the original Constitution, and the right to religious freedom as an addendum in the Bill of Rights, how can we claim one right trumps another? The reality is that there must be a way to respect and protect every American’s rights.

Imagine being in a same-sex, committed relationship, and finding out that your spouse has fallen deathly ill. Then, you find out that you are prohibited from sitting at their bedside or making medical decisions for them — rights guaranteed to a spouse from a straight couple.  As some readers may know, the laws regarding life support and medical decisions have been governed by the status of “family,” thus making it impossible for a person’s life partner to act as a spouse if they are not legally married (especially considering gay marriage was only legalized three years ago). Is this not impeding on the ill person’s rights — their own right to life — by refusing them the ability to designate their primary family member as their medical decision maker? I am obviously not blind to the reality that people are hesitant to “endorse” gay marriage because it “encourages a sin.” However, if we want to get to the root of treating people like humans, this issue should not be politicized or viewed through a specifically religious lense. Rather, we need to see how the basic Constitutional rights and treatment of an LGBT person as any other person are being denied more broadly on a fundamental level.

It is important to recognize the distinction between LGBT-phobia in general, and the specific religious practice of denouncing the sin of homosexual acts. We often forget that the Torah does not say “being a gay person” is a sin, and yet, homophobia is rampant in the Orthodox community.  With regard to politics, I do not always affiliate myself with the Republican Party because I see their leaders and members — often very involved in religious communities — making homophobic and transphobic statements. This is why the article’s use of the Cake case concerns me: the lines become blurred between its objective argument for religious freedom and its perception of the LGBT community as a threat to the expression of such freedom.

This concern is corroborated by its overarching argument that our religious freedom is more important than “the civil rights of others.” While a religious person may be hesitant to endorse homosexual acts, I tend to find that in both the Orthodox community and the Republican party, people often make general LGBT-phobic remarks that are more indicative of a general distaste for LGBT people as a whole, rather than a stemming from a religious concern. This is antithetical to both the Torah commandment to treat people with love and respect, and the Constitutional rights to humanity that all people are entitled to.

The article argues that “Republicans believe that freedom of religion supersedes rights not protected by the Constitution.” With this I cannot disagree: Constitutional rights should fundamentally have a higher status than those legislated later. However, as I have explained, basic fundamental rights stated long before the First Amendment, such as life, liberty and happiness, indicate that the civil rights of LGBT people are, in fact, protected by the Constitution, and therefore are not automatically superseded by religious freedom. To argue any different is to question the basic foundations of our Democracy.

While it is wrong for the Democratic Party to throw out our religious freedom in favor or other peoples’ rights, it is equally wrong to want to throw out other people's’ civil rights in favor of our religious freedom. If we are to hold the article as representative of the Republican Party, of Yeshiva University students, or of Orthodox Judaism, we should be equally, if not more, “warned” about these institutions as well.  Many statements in this article serve as examples of the exact issue I previously explained: “othering” LGBT people by perceiving that their rights threaten ours or must always compete with ours — or for that matter, are antithetical to ours. If we perceive our religious or Constitutional freedoms to be inherently threatened by LGBT people's’ desire, need, and right to live their lives, we are part of the problem.

In applying this to my life as an Orthodox Jew attending YU, I ask myself questions such as: have I treated everyone in my life with the utmost humanity? Have I made sure that my LGBT friends in school feel safe? Have I let them know that they are equally important to, and valued in, the community?  While the article did not directly make homophobic remarks, the way the author gravely pits our religious freedoms against these LGBT peoples’ civil rights leaves the reader with a distaste for, and fear of, the latter. Perhaps the author does not feel negativity toward LGBT people; however, their specific description of LGBT people as a threat to our own religious freedom — something that is essential to us — cannot be left unchallenged. As this article was published in a Yeshiva University newspaper, I need to speak loudly and clearly in this ocean of silence: LGBT people of YU, you are welcome to be here, and you deserve to be treated equally. And I’m sorry if you have been made not to feel like that in the past.

To strengthen my argument and to bring this issue closer to home, I asked some of my LGBT friends at YU for their perspectives on the conflicts of religiosity and a LGBT identity. I hope readers will see the common thread of their statements and understand that these students, many of whom are living in hiding and fear the implications of coming out in this Orthodox Jewish community, are not a threat. Many of these students strive to find a balance between these two identities and hope to be able to find a way to fit into the community. All of the following quotes are from anonymous, current Yeshiva University students:

“Being LGBT is hard enough on its own, and being Jewish is hard enough on its own. Now imagine putting them together? That’s my definition of hell on earth. My thoughts on being LGBT and Jewish are complex and sometimes conflicting. I’m working on reconciling the two, but I don’t know if that will ever happen. I believe that since the Torah was written many, many years ago it would have been ridiculous for it to not condemn LGBT relationships. I believe that no one would have accepted the Torah if it said such an “absurd” thing. I don’t know what God thinks, I don’t know if God thinks being LGBT is “good” or “bad.”  What I do know is that I identify as LGBT and I have to believe that God made me this way for a reason, and I have to believe that God wants me to be happy. I am still trying to reconcile the two but for now, they are equally important to me even though some might say they conflict, I refuse to believe that that is possible.”

“It's [being LGBT and Orthodox] something that I have to reconcile in my mind, quite literally every second of the day. I constantly battle myself over the choice I've made to live halachically rather than necessarily happily, and the fact that someone else thinks that they can navigate my decisions better than I can makes me disappointed in their hubris more than anything.”

“It's difficult enough reconciling it to myself without people fear mongering that me having rights will take away their rights.”

Veahavta lareacha kamocha. If we do not believe everyone, including those who identify as LGBT, deserves an equal chance at life, liberty, and happiness because it infringes on some of our own beliefs, are we really upholding the values that we claim to be at the foundation for both our religious and American lives?

Sarah Casteel, Stern College for Women ‘19