Morality and the Texas Legislature

Sermon given October 3, 2003, by Rabbi Barry H. Block

Last Monday, my colleague and close personal friend, Rabbi Amy Schwartzman, was among sixteen congregational rabbis invited to meet with President Bush during the High Holy Days. The rabbis were supposedly representative of the spiritual leadership of our American Jewish community, but Rabbi Schwartzman reports that only two of the sixteen were Reform, the largest Jewish religious movement in the United States.

Most of the issues discussed, not surprisingly, revolved around Israel and the war in Iraq, and the President was lauded for those efforts. The Rabbis present reportedly even gave the President support for his faith-based initiatives.

In what must have been the day’s greatest understatement, Rabbi Schwartzman told a reporter that “she was ‘surprised and disappointed that the group did not represent the ideological spectrum of the American Jewish community. . . . I felt I was surrounded by people who were simply patting the president on the back.”

Interestingly, then, the headline in The Jewish Week reads: “President Gets a Jewish Earful.” The article focuses on Rabbi Schwartzman’s statement to the President, challenging the administration’s economic policies. Later, Rabbi Schwartzman said: “‘I spoke about how tragic I thought it was that one of the world’s richest nations has 35 million people living in poverty, 12 million children.”

This encounter, between the President of the United States and a carefully selected group of Rabbis, indicates a misunderstanding, or maybe even a disagreement, about what constitutes a moral issue, a religious issue, and specifically a Jewish issue for discussion with our American government. The President, and apparently most of Monday’s invited Rabbis, thought that, as religious leaders, these fifteen men and one woman would be interested only in issues directly or indirectly related to Israel, and perhaps also the faith-based initiatives. Other matters, such as poverty and health care, are viewed as secular concerns, beyond the legitimate scope of a dialogue with Rabbis.

With Rabbi Schwartzman, I disagree. During the last year, for example, I have offered sermons about health care, and specifically about mental health care, indicating that our entire society has a moral obligation to assure that all who suffer are offered adequate treatment. In Judaism, we call that imperative pikuah nefesh, the commandment to save a life, which supersedes almost every other religious obligation. Maimonides quotes the biblical injunction, not to stand idly by while our neighbor bleeds, as proof that we may not be indifferent when the ill in our midst go untreated.

Frankly, I offered those sermons, in the hope and the prayer that our Texas Legislature would address the grave moral ills facing our beloved state, which ranks near the bottom of the nation in almost every category of health care for the less fortunate. Education, too, remains a crisis in this state, and I needn’t tell you that Judaism has much to say about that priority.

And yet, many would tell you that this year’s regular session of the Texas Legislature involved a great deal of emphasis on religious issues.

For one, Texas now has a law, requiring a moment of silence to begin each public school day, together with the recitation of the pledges to the American and Texas flags. This new law was welcomed by those who believe that American public schools have become hostile environments for religious expression. Try telling that to our Temple students, who attend public schools. Third graders hear that they are going to hell because they don’t believe in Jesus. Junior High students see placards in the hallways, and receive invitations at school to attend ostensibly social events with a Christian missionary goal. High school athletes are subjected to prayers, often illegally led by the coach, sometimes several times a day.

The law mandating the moment of silence, hailed by those who want more religion in our public schools, might actually have been the least flagrant law we could have hoped for in the current legislative environment. Indeed, the bill’s sponsor, a moderate, told me that his goal, in part, was to stave off the more egregious invasions of religion into public schools that many of his colleagues would have preferred. Certainly, though, we in the Jewish community do not rejoice at even relatively minor chipping away at the separation of church and state.

Another piece of legislation was most warmly greeted by religious conservatives. I speak now of the so-called “Defense of Marriage Act,” which states that same-sex marriages conducted outside of Texas will not be recognized here. The “Defense of Marriage Act” is regarded by many as a bulwark, protecting a moral, Christian society and its sacred institution of marriage from the alleged attacks of homosexuals. As a Rabbi, who will officiate at same-sex marriages, right here in this sacred Temple, in keeping with the teachings of Reform Judaism, I view the “Defense of Marriage Act” as a violation of the religious freedom of Reform Jews, and of others whose religions sanctify same-sex marriage.

The highest priority for the Christian right in the recent regular legislative session was dramatic restriction to women’s reproductive freedom. We now have an absurd law, requiring that women who choose to have an abortion be shown graphic photographs of a developing fetus. Worse, the new law insists that women be told that having an abortion will increase their chances of contracting breast cancer, a link that is disputed by no less authority than the American Cancer Society and every responsible professional organization of obstetricians and gynecologists. Abortion is now the only legal medical procedure for which the Legislature, rather than physicians, is writing the consent forms that we all sign when we undergo treatment. Though the proponents of this law offer other justifications, the real reason for it is to curtail abortion, which violates the teachings of their religion. Once again, they have passed a law that impinges upon the religious freedom of Jews, among others whose religions permit and even require abortion under certain circumstances.

Finally, among the new measures passed with obvious religious motivation is a rider to the budget, not even a law, and therefore a regulation that did not receive full hearing or debate on either side of the Capitol. Rider 8, as it is called, dictates that no government funding for family planning may be granted to organizations that also provide elective abortions. This measure redirects money that pays for birth control for some of Texas’ poorest women and men. Its aim, as stated by its sponsor, is to harm Planned Parenthood affiliates throughout Texas, because the Christian right deems Planned Parenthood to be evil. Never mind that Planned Parenthood has never, ever spent even one cent of family planning funding to provide abortions. Never mind that defunding birth control at Planned Parenthood will obviously lead to more abortions. Thankfully, for the moment, this particular regulation has been stopped by an injunction, issued by the Honorable Sam Sparks, an Austin federal judge. And yet, the legislature’s religious orientation is clear. The Christian right’s goal of restricting abortion is to be pursued, even to the detriment of our entire state.

But these are only the issues that are most broadly defined as religious, moral matters. The truth is that the Legislature failed equally miserably in the less obviously religious concerns of CHIP, the Children’s Health Insurance Program; Medicaid, basic medical care for the poorest among us; and, perhaps most disastrously of all, mental health care.

Suffice it to say that Rabbi Schwartzman and I are not the only religious leaders who believe these matters to be of great spiritual concern. Methodist Healthcare Ministries lobbied strenuously on behalf of these programs, as did Archbishop Flores himself. Across our state, mainstream Protestant, Catholic and Jewish leaders called upon our lawmakers to ensure adequate physical and mental health care for every Texan, and especially every child. The majority of our legislators disappointed us terribly.

Just yesterday, the headline in our newspaper told us that Texas now tops the nation in the percentage of citizens lacking health insurance of any kind. As the paper’s Editorial Board pointed out this morning, the situation will only worsen, with the cuts in CHIP and Medicaid. Earlier, we read about the possible closing of the San Antonio State Hospital, for mental patients, and of dramatic cuts at the Center for Health Care Services, our local mental health and mental retardation authority. These services are already dramatically inadequate, well below the national average, and in violation of the dictates of Judaism and countless other religions.

As citizens of the State of Texas, we have blood on our hands, for our neighbors are bleeding, and we, as a society, are standing idly by.

As our Legislature continues to meet, may religious people throughout our state speak up, once again, on behalf of the poor, the sick and the mentally ill, who can not always speak for themselves.

As our Legislature continues to meet, may God inspire its members to act on behalf of the most vulnerable in our midst.

As the Legislature continues to meet, may the Senators and Representatives come to understand the difference between matters of true morality and issues of narrow religious interest, and may they join together to bring our state closer to God’s vision of a world redeemed.