Religion

Religious Solidarity Is Not Invidious Discrimination

(Pixabay)
A Christian provider of foster-care services should be permitted to serve Christians only.

A person cannot value diversity and pluralism while simultaneously demanding that every group be entirely inclusive and open. Such an enforced orthodoxy of inclusion is antithetical to pluralism. If one is truly welcoming of other points of view, he must accept that sometimes other groups will make him feel excluded or even offended. If this were not the case, if every group were bland and nearly indistinguishable from its neighbors, there would be little value in pluralism and diversity. The Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) recent condemnation of Miracle Hill Ministries’ foster-care service for its policy of exclusively serving Christian parents indicates that the ADL has lost sight of this basic truth.

The ADL is an organization whose mission includes ensuring that American Jews are free to live out their distinctive religious identity. It purports to teach young people to “embrace diversity” and says it has “always emphasized the importance of mutual respect among all religions.” Such ideals should lead the ADL to recognize that other religions have distinctive viewpoints and unique obligations that may, sometimes, require them to exclude members of other faiths.

The unique ties between members of any religion are based on their shared beliefs and not on hatred for members of other religions. Absent specific evidence of hateful intent — and in Miracle Hill Ministries’ case, none has even been alleged, much less shown — a religious group’s decision to partner only with fellow believers should not be interpreted as invidious discrimination. Diversity necessarily requires distinctions. A group of people who all think and act in the same manner is not diverse; it’s merely homogeneous. Occasional barriers between groups allow them to retain the differences that produce true diversity. That diversity then benefits everyone when the groups come back together.

For example, the Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty is strengthened by its collaboration with Muslim and Christian partners precisely because we hold different views. We cooperate on writing legal briefs with members of other faiths, and we benefit because each group brings unique insights to the process. However, this is possible only because we respect one another’s faiths. We understand that our faiths sometimes mandate separation and distinction, but we see the unique perspectives born of that distinctiveness as a strength and not a weakness. Taking our partners’ faith seriously means that we cannot pick and choose which of their beliefs we honor, and that they owe us the same respect. That is the blueprint for building a durable and beneficial religious pluralism in America. The ADL’s recent letter regarding Miracle Hill Ministries’ foster-care services fails to follow this blueprint.

Miracle Hill Ministries is a Christian ministry located in South Carolina. It provides services including homeless shelters, addiction-recovery centers, and support for individuals and families participating in the state’s foster-care system. Miracle Hill does not actually place children into foster homes. It helps recruit families to act as foster parents, and then it supports those families throughout the fostering process. It provides emotional, logistical, and spiritual support to parents as they face the challenges inherent in applying to be, and acting as, foster parents.  Miracle Hill provides these services without regard to the race, religion, or sexual orientation of the foster children involved. It does, however, restrict its services to Christian parents.

Miracle Hill cites its religion as the force that motivates — or, more accurately, obligates — it to help the needy. The ministry views its foster-care services as a direct fulfillment of a passage in the Christian Bible. It should therefore be unsurprising that this ministry’s behaviors are informed and constrained by its religious beliefs.

Anyone who values diversity and pluralism should applaud, or at least tolerate, these circumstances. In a pluralistic society, who could possibly object to a religious organization that chooses to help the less fortunate in a manner consistent with its faith?

The ADL apparently sees things differently. It views Miracle Hill’s religious practices as “grossly unfair” discrimination. It decries governmental support for Miracle Hill as “immoral and grossly unjust.” On this basis, it wrote a letter opposing Miracle Hill’s request for an exemption from a federal regulation that might prohibit the ministry’s decision to partner only with coreligionists.

A Reform rabbi in South Carolina who agrees with the ADL claimed that the ministry was telling Jews that they are “not fit to parent in South Carolina.” The rabbi further insisted that “everyone must have a seat at the table — at every table.” That is not a pluralistic ideal; it is an authoritarian one. It would demand enforced orthodoxy and the elimination of diversity. Such a demand threatens to eliminate the benefits of diversity and is especially dangerous to minority faiths that may lack the political power of their neighbors.

It would be one thing if Miracle Hill were the lone foster-care-services provider in South Carolina. If that were the case (and it is not), it would perhaps be possible to see why the state and federal government might have a compelling interest in ensuring that South Carolinians of all religions had the ability to act as foster parents. But, importantly, even if Miracle Hill were the only provider, the ministry’s desire to cater to its coreligionists would not be immoral, demonstrate hatred for other groups, or indicate that they view Jews as unfit. There is no counterfactual in which such an action, by itself, proves bigoted motivation.

Honoring pluralism means understanding that not everyone must have a seat at every table. It entails respecting that different groups can both maintain their own unique identities and enrich the larger society. There is nothing immoral or hateful about distinct groups’ sometimes restricting their services to members of their own communities. Of course, such exclusivity might, in some cases, be motivated by bigotry. Invidious discrimination does exist and should be decried where it has been proven to fester. Yet the mere fact that a group sometimes favors its own members does not by itself establish any sort of hateful discrimination. Absent any indication that Miracle Hill is motivated by a hatred of Jews, Catholics, Muslims, or any other group, the ministry’s insistence on maintaining the integrity of its religious identity is an example of pluralism rather than bigotry.

If Miracle Hill had a monopoly on foster-care services in South Carolina, the government might still have an interest in requiring them to serve all comers. However, that simply is not the case. The ministry has neither the power nor the desire to prevent members of other religions from becoming successful foster parents. There are other foster-care agencies in South Carolina, including the state’s own Department of Social Services. The Department of Social Services records that it places over 1,000 children in foster homes per year. Miracle Hill partnered with only a small fraction of those families in 2017. That does not describe a situation in which Miracle Hill is the only option for non-Christian parents.

Miracle Hill is not merely at risk of losing funding. Earlier this year, it was denied a permanent renewal of its license to place foster children, prompting the intervention of the governor. Similar disputes have arisen regarding foster-care providers in Massachusetts and Philadelphia. Ultimately, what is at stake in these cases is American pluralism. Will America cultivate an environment in which different religious groups can coexist — collaborating where possible while also remaining true to their beliefs? Will America maintain a vibrant public square where diversity is cherished, even given the understanding that exclusion is sometimes a necessary precondition for such diversity? Or will Americans be forced to adopt a drab uniformity in order to prevent anyone from feeling excluded or offended?

Jews should be the first to understand the danger inherent in viewing separateness as bigotry. We were, after all, persecuted for centuries because our religion consists not merely of beliefs but of national identity. Routinely, anti-Semites falsely interpreted this reality as a reflection of Jewish animosity toward those belonging to other religions. In fact, ever since the Bible, Jews have adopted a hands-off approach to other faiths, refusing to proselytize. Yet there are religious activities that require Jews to act as a distinct group — just as is the case with other religions.

There is a difference between distinction and bigotry. If groups such as the ADL want to promote true diversity, they must learn to oppose bigotry without enforcing a stifling orthodoxy on groups that happen to hold sincere beliefs that differ from their own.

Howard Slugh is an attorney practicing in Washington, D.C. Rabbi Mitchell Rocklin is a postdoctoral research associate in the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University. They are two of the three co-founders of the Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty.

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