Once, not so long ago, to describe someone as religious was considered a compliment. The term connoted certain virtues – e.g., probity, fidelity. Today, it is more likely to be used as a synonym for narrow-minded bigotry.
The public square is no longer neutral with respect to religion, but actively hostile. Secular no longer means non-religious, but more often anti-religious. Indeed, modern secularism has become a sort of religion itself, with its own rights, priests, and catechism.
The change is an outgrowth of the permissiveness of the so-called "sexual evolution," which pronounced all matters having to do with relations between the sexes to be beyond moral judgment – as a moral principle. In short order, that principal expanded to include all opinion as to normative family structure and gender identity. Leading the charge has been the LGBT community, which has long since moved beyond the demand for the removal of certain civil disabilities to one for positive affirmation of their legitimacy by every single citizen.
Nothing so demonstrates the sea change as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act passed by a unanimous House and nearly unanimous Senate in 1993. RFRA followed upon the Supreme Court's 1990 decision in Employment Division vs. Smith, the so-called peyote case, in which Justice Scalia opined that religious observers – in this case, members of the Native American Church – have no right to religious exemptions from facially neutral statutes not enacted with the specific intent of burdening religion. In other words, the church members could not claim religious discrimination because the law banning peyote use was not enacted to impede the practice of their religion.
RFRA, which was introduced in the House by then congressman Charles Schumer and the Senate by Teddy Kennedy, returned, at least at the federal level, the status quo ante, i.e., requiring the government to show a "compelling state interest" if a law burdened religious adherents by its application. Twenty-one states subsequently passed their own RFRA statutes.
How things changed over the next two decades. It is doubtful that any state today would consider enacting a RFRA statute after what happened to Indiana and Georgia two years ago: They were subjected to well-organized commercial boycotts over newly enacted or contemplated RFRA statutes. Leading the charge was the LGBT community, which was exercised over the possibility that bakers who refused to produce wedding cakes with two grooms or two brides might not be subjected to ruinous fines under the state RFRA statute.
AS FAR AS HOSTILITY to religion has proceeded in the United States, things are much worse in Western Europe and the United Kingdom, where Christianity is increasingly a dead letter. The leader of the Liberal Democratic party in the UK, Tim Farron, resigned after the party's recent disastrous election showing. In doing so, Farron stated, "To be a political leader – especially of a progressive liberal party in 2017 – and to live as a committed Christian, to hold faithfully to the Bible's teachings, has felt impossible for me."
And no wonder. I watched one interview with Farron in which he was asked whether he considered abortion to be a sin. No matter how many times he affirmed his longstanding commitment to legalized abortion, it was to no avail. The interviewer would not be satisfied with anything less than a full-throated affirmation that abortion is not a sin. That scenario was played out again and again in the course of the campaign.
Private religious beliefs, at least in England, are no longer private. (To be sure, Senator Bernie Sanders also recently questioned a would be government appointee at length on his Christian beliefs.) To be tolerant of other views is not enough: One must stand and proclaim the new "sexual morality." In his resignation statement, Farron put it well: "We are kidding ourselves if we think we yet live in a tolerant, liberal society."
THE MORAL CLIMATE in which we live affects us as well, a point frequently made by the late Rabbi Shimon Schwab. But the impact of the new religion of secularism may be much more immediate and direct on our community. In oral argument in the Obergefell vs. Hodges case, in which the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that same gender couples must, as a matter of constitutional law, be permitted to marry,, the Solicitor General admitted that a decision on behalf of the plaintiffs might well warrant the end of tax exemptions for educational or other charitable institutions that continue to oppose state recognition of same-gender relationships or to affirm their legitimacy.
Recent news from the United Kingdom demonstrates how direct the impact may be. A Vizhnitz elementary school for girls between three and eight years of age recently failed for the third time its government inspection. That inspection found that the pupils are "well-motivated, have positive attitudes to learning, and are confident in thinking for themselves." The inspectors also found that the teachers' "good subject matter knowledge and high quality classroom resources, inspire pupils with enthusiasm for learning."
The problem, however, was that the curriculum failed to "promote equality of opportunity in ways that take into account differing lifestyles." The astute reader will not have difficulty guessing what those "differing lifestyles" might be. As a consequence of that failure, the report concluded, "pupils are not able to gain a full understanding of fundamental British values."
By "fundamental British values," the inspectors did not mean "traditional British values." Indeed, many of the "differing lifestyles" that even private schools are now enjoined to promote were punishable as severe criminal offenses in the not too distant past, and have been condemned in every Western religious tradition for the last three thousand years.
But a new enlightened understanding has spread in the land, and all must pay obeisance, their own religious traditions notwithstanding. The British inspectors would have these young girls exposed to a curriculum that would, in the old phraseology, "make a sailor blush." And they must be taught to respect that which the Torah considers anathema, and about which they would have been unlikely to hear at all.
The rule applied to the Vizhnitz girls school potentially applies to every Torah school in the United Kingdom, and subjects every Torah school to the ultimate sanction of closure.
To be sure, the British government does not intend to close every Torah school. I spoke to Mrs. Judith Nemeth, the executive director of the National Association of Jewish Orthodox Schools, overseen by senior British rabbanim. She told me that there are many steps between failure of the Ofsted review and school closure, and the latter decision can only be taken in the Education Ministry, within which the Orthodox community is not without friends. And she noted that other schools have passed the Ofsted review despite having informed the inspectors in the clearest possible fashion that they would not teach a syllabus on alternative lifestyles or permit their students to be interviewed on topics of which they had never heard and would never hear in school.
But neither was the review without consequence. As far as the Vizhnitz school goes, it will prevent the school from going forward with a much needed expansion for its rapidly growing student body. And as a harbinger of the future, the negative report can only fill British Torah Jewry with foreboding. Indeed, it serves as a warning of the potential for conflict between a Torah education and the increasingly regnant aecular orthodoxy throughout the West.
IT WOULD BE TEMPTING to argue that the secular state has no legitimate interest in what private religious institutions teach their students. That, however, is not so. If a Saudi-supported Islamic academy in Virginia uses textbooks advocating violence against Christians, Shiites, and Jews, that is certainly the business of the State of Virginia. And similarly, if preachers in the Finsbury Park mosque in London regular issue calls to "kill the kufr," and particularly if those in attendance show a marked tendency to act upon those calls to action, the British government should not hesitate to expel those preachers and maintain surveillance of the mosque.
In short, Islam is the elephant in the room. The rapid growth of Islam in the United Kingdom is one of the major factors behind greater government involvement in the curricula of religious schools. Yet sensitive to the charge of Islamophobia, school inspectors – even ones who are not full subscribers to the new religion oecularism – will be tempted to find examples of non-Islamic schools that run afoul of the rules.
Ultimately, something akin to the test employed by the United States Supreme Court in the Yoder case, which exempted Amish children past eighth grade from Wisconsin's compulsory school attendance law, must be applied. Because the Amish were, in general, exemplary citizens – not dependent on public welfare, low rates of crime, etc. – the Court determined that Wisconsin did not have a compelling interest in making them attend high school.
So long as the definition of citizenship does not include affirmation of the secular catechism, the Yoder test is one that the graduates of Torah schools should always be able to pass. When the AIDS epidemic first erupted, New York State imposed a mandatory AIDS curriculum on all schools in the state. Rabbi Moshe Sherer, however, was able to persuade the state educational authorities that the "abstinence curriculum" taught in Torah schools was the functional equivalent in fighting AIDS.
The imperative, then, for the continued autonomy of Torah schools is that we demonstrate that those schools excel in producing law-abiding citizens and ones who eschew all acts of violence against their fellow citizens, no matter how much they may disagree with their behavior.