For the past two years, the tug-of-war between America’s religious organizations and President Obama has fixated the discussion of religious freedom around a single question: can the devout evangelical Christian owners of Hobby Lobby, a popular chain of arts-and-crafts stores, opt out of the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate because it violates their religious beliefs? It’s certainly an important question for the country’s religious minorities, including Jewish Americans, who need to know just how far their government is willing to go to accommodate the First Amendment’s guarantee of the free exercise of religion.
The Hobby Lobby case, which was decided on Monday in a 5-to-4 Supreme Court ruling, has been applauded by the champions of religious liberty as a great victory. But let’s be honest: this is not where defenders of religious freedom should be focusing their energies. They need to start concentrating on how to end the global persecution of Christians because it’s fast becoming the planet’s most deadly and malicious denial of religious freedom.
According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, between 2006-2010, Christians faced some type of formal or informal harassment in 139 countries, nearly three-quarters of all the earth’s nations. But in no place do Christians have it worse than in the Middle East.
In Syria, a population that was once over a million strong in 2010 has dwindled to less than 550,000 today—a decline of nearly 50 percent. In Iraq, an ancient Christian community has been nearly eradicated over the past decade. Most Iraqi Christians are living in exile, and an astonishing number have been killed. In 1990, Iraq’s Christian population numbered roughly 1.5 million; today an estimated 500,000 are left, although the real number is likely much lower.
And Iraq’s Christians have been under near constant attack well before the recent resurgence of Islamist militants there. Back in October 2010, ISIS attacked the Syriac Catholic cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation in Baghdad, killing two priests and leaving another 58 worshippers dead. On Christmas Day last year, scores of Iraqis were murdered when two bombs blew up in a church.
So what have America’s Christian churches been doing to address this litany of horrors and help their persecuted brethren in the Middle East? Not as much as they could. To be sure, many denominations have spoken out. But some have become so preoccupied with Israel’s transgressions against the Palestinians that they don’t have much time to focus on anything else.
Take the Presbyterian Church (USA), the largest of several Presbyterian denominations in America, which last week resolved to divest its stock from three companies (Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard, and Motorola Solutions) that are “profiting from violence” perpetrated against Palestinians. Of the 14 resolutions before the organization’s Committee on Middle East Issues this year, every one of them concerned “Israel’s occupation” and its “violation of human rights in the region”. Nothing about Syria’s Christians, who have been at the mercy of extremist rebel fighters for years. Not a word on Iran, where conversion to Christianity is a criminal offense. And not even a mention of the Christians living in Egypt’s southern provenance of Minya. When former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi was in power, they were continually targeted by Islamist kidnappers, who operated with impunity against them. With Morsi’s ouster, things haven’t changed much. Their churches are still being destroyed and damaged by radical Islamists.
PC (USA) probably doesn’t know it, but as the region hemorrhages Christians, Israel is one place where Christianity is growing (at a rate of 1.3 percent annually). Only 2 percent of Israel’s citizens are Christians (the vast majority Arabs), yet these 160,000 Israelis are doing well and are on an upward trajectory to do even better. Christian Arab citizens of Israel participate fully in the political, economic, and cultural life of the country. They serve on the Supreme Court and in the Knesset, and the level of Christian education is remarkable. Because they increasingly see themselves as an integral part of the Jewish state, more are even choosing to serve in the military.
To be sure, there’s still a need for improvement. The Christian Israeli Arab employment rate continues to lag behind the national average, and hate crimes against churches and other Christian property is not always swiftly investigated or adequately prosecuted.
But the reality is that Israel is the one island of decency for the region’s Christians. It’s a reality that’s lost on the leadership of PC (USA) who apparently think that Zionism and Israel are the cause of all conflict in the Middle East. Thanks for the insight, PC (USA). Have a nice day.
All this is not meant to trivialize the Hobby Lobby ruling. The decision worries a lot of American Jews, myself included. (Quick disclosure: while only a five minute drive from where I live, not being much into sewing, knitting, or scrapbooking, I have yet to shop at my local Hobby Lobby, one of the company’s 600 stores in nearly 50 states).
In the long run, the best way to ensure the free exercise of religion is to protect individual, not corporate, rights—a view adopted by the progressive Jewish Social Policy Action Network and the American Jewish Committee. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who wrote a compelling dissent, also correctly warns that the decision opens the floodgates to any private employer looking for religious-based exemptions to whatever medical procedures or drugs that they don’t like. That’s a dangerous slippery slope that could wind up negatively impacting not only a woman’s right to the birth control of her choice, but the health of all Americans, Jews and non-Jews alike.
Still, it’s a good day for Jewish Americans when the Supreme Court hands down a ruling that’s consistent with Jewish Halacha. After all, the Orthodox perspective on this issue—presented in a brief filed by attorney Nathan Lewin of Lewin & Lewin LLP (and joined by seven Orthodox organizations)—is that, in terms of the religious observances of a Jewish employer, there are no distinctions between whether a business is run individually or as a corporation. It’s the very same position taken by the Supreme Court’s majority this week.
Get ready this summer for a nasty battle between Jewish American organizations over the merits of the ruling. But most Jewish Americans should be able to live with Burwell v. Hobby Lobby—as long as the Obama administration or Congress come up with an alternative way to pay for the types of FDA-approved contraceptives that Hobby Lobby finds so religiously objectionable.