When ‘Religious Freedom’ Would Bury Human Rights

When ‘Religious Freedom’ Would Bury Human Rights

By Robbie Medwed / robbie@sojourngsd.org

It’s not very often that matters of halacha (Jewish law) become the subject of daily proceedings under the Gold Dome. In fact, aside from the kashrut certification battle a few years ago, I can’t remember any other instances. That is, until now. The Jewish laws surrounding autopsies have become a central focus of lawmakers in recent weeks as House Bill 29, the poorly named “religious freedom” bill, winds its way through the Georgia General Assembly.

According to traditional Jewish law, the body of someone who has died should be buried as soon as possible. In some cases it’s within a day or two, but it could happen within hours. When it’s not possible to bury the body so quickly, laws dealing with dignity come into play. For some, these laws include a prohibition on disturbing the body in any permanent way. This can (but does not always) include a prohibition on performing an autopsy.

Autopsies are not universally prohibited in Judaism, though. In fact, there are very specific laws on how to conduct an autopsy on a Jewish body while still observing the Judaic laws surrounding dignity, including some instances in which one would be obligated to have an autopsy. If an autopsy would save other lives, such as in a case of a rare disease (medical research) or linking DNA to a murderer (preventing other deaths), it is nearly required by Judaic law.

All of this, of course, should be the purview of someone’s rabbi and not the state. I imagine few people would disagree. H.B. 29, sponsored by Rep. Sam Teasley (R-Marietta), would, among other things, allow observant Jews to elect not to have an autopsy performed on a relative, and that seems like a great idea. In reality, though, it’s not.

Protecting Judaic observance surrounding burial is only one thing that a “religious freedom” bill does. Here are some of the others, and there are many more:

  • H.B. 29, as written, would allow corporations to claim a religious exemption from observing laws they do not agree with, such as nondiscrimination policies.
  • H.B. 29 could allow an abusive parent to claim a religious exemption from child welfare and safety laws.
  • Medical doctors and pharmacists could deny birth control prescriptions based on religious objection.
  • A religious freedom bill would allow people to discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, ignoring local nondiscrimination ordinances.
  • Government agencies would be prohibited from disciplining an employee who breaks the rules.

A blanket religious freedom bill — even one that restricts action to government only, as H.B. 29 claims — is a very bad idea, and Georgia’s Jewish community is being used as a pawn to justify its passage. Representatives are hoping that our support for our own issues — in this case, autopsy prohibitions — will cause us to push for a religious freedom bill so loudly that people won’t look into what the rest of the bill could do and the damage it could bring.

So how do we ensure that Jews (and other religiously observant people) have their religious beliefs protected? Five states — California, Maryland, New Jersey, New York and Ohio — have passed “religious objection to autopsy” laws that provide a specific process for denying an autopsy, usually within a few hours with a simple form. These laws are simple and clear and provide a direct mechanism for protecting religious beliefs and government interests without trampling on the rights of others, as H.B. 29 would.

There is no basis in Jewish tradition for enacting a civil law that would protect our self-interests at the expense of someone else’s safety. If Georgia’s lawmakers are truly intent on protecting Judaic or any other religious observance, and not on opening a back door to discrimination, they should push for a specific “religious objection to autopsy” bill and not a dangerous blanket bill like H.B. 29.

Robbie Medwed is the assistant director of SOJOURN: Southern Jewish Resource Network for Gender and Sexual Diversity.

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