Debate Midrash Takes on Religious Freedom

Hebrew Academy High School’s monthly Debate Midrash tackled the topic of freedom of religion within a business setting on Monday December 4th in the cafeteria.

Students were told that the legal dispute is rooted in the first amendment, which states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances,” and the fourteenth amendment, whose equal protection clause writes that no state can “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

The three cases discussed included a Jewish OBGYN that denied an abortion to an otherwise healthy woman, a religious fundamentalist who refused to sell cloth to a Muslim couple to make prayer rugs, and a Jewish scribe that would not make a Sefer Torah for a right-wing fundamentalist who wanted to recreate Kristallnacht by burning a Torah.

Rafi Benson (11th grade) began the discussion by mentioning the case where a Colorado bakery owner refused to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple.

“This [case] is clearly discrimination because you are doing it for a religious thing not harming anyone else,” said Benson. “If they were doing this to shoot people, then that people shouldn’t let them do because it is harmful. This isn’t something harmful. It is something personal, because if you’re not harming someone else, then do it, why not?”  

Aided by History Teacher Mr. Matla, Jonathan Malove (11th) mentioned the legal documents that pertain to the cases.

“By our religion, it [the First Amendment] is a federal law, and we have the right to do that,” Malove said. “There’s also the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which essentially allowed, which is also federal, which prevents discrimination. So now you have two federal laws that contradict each other and the question that all of these cases are going to come down to is where you draw the line of what part is discrimination and what is the line of what you are allowed to do.”

Other students highlighted the religious purpose of the alleged discrimination, supporting their argument with the constitutional right to freedom of religion.

“One of the great things about America is that you can do what you want,” Jack Benveniste-Plitt (11th) said. “Obviously you can’t think ‘because you’re this I’m not going to give it to you,’ but you could also say ‘this specific purpose conflicts with my religious beliefs so I’d rather you go and do this someplace else instead of here.’ I mean, that’s what’s great. You can do that because it is a private business so you get to control what you decide to sell your things to.”  

This Debate Midrash introduced a new concept: eighth graders were invited to the high school debate.  Herschel Karp (8th) was the first middle school member to speak, siding with the private businesses.

“I’ve been to a restaurant before that said on it ‘we get to choose who we want to serve and we’re allowed to, if you’re not behaving well, we’re allowed to sort of kick you out’,” said Karp. “I think this is different but it is sort of the same. It is a private institution are able to do things how they want since they serve themselves.”

Some Hebrew Academy students questioned the validity of the issue.

“I don’t see what the problem is,” said Jonathan Alishayev (9th). “If one store does not want to do something for you, then just go to another store.”

Math Teacher Mr. Innes addressed the negligible conditions which led to these controversies.

“I’m saying that you need to be really careful when you choose professions that put you in the front and center and put you and your family at risk,” Innes said. “Whether you’re right or wrong, you put your family at risk, and I’m not so sure that that’s such a smart thing to do because I can think of a number of ways I could do what I want to do and not necessarily put my family and community at risk.”

By: Samantha Ebner (10th Grade)

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