In a recent opinion published in Haaretz, Rabbi Dennis Sasso repeated previous partisan attacks on Republican vice-presidential candidate and Indiana Governor Mike Pence, painting him as a conservative extremist opposed to American ideals and Jewish ethics. As officers of the only statewide, grassroots Jewish and Israel advocacy organization in Indiana who have also had the privilege of working closely with Pence and other Indiana legislators of both political parties to pass groundbreaking pro-Jewish, pro-Israel legislation, we dispute this inaccurate and partisan portrayal.
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Mike Pence has a strong and unshakeable attachment to the Jewish people and the State of Israel, which he has called “America’s most cherished ally.” In sharp contrast to many of his critics, Pence is a vocal supporter of Israel’s right to defend itself against threats from Iran and Hamas. Similarly, while many of his opponents support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, Pence recently signed into law what Israel’s Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer called “the toughest anti-BDS legislation in the nation.”
Pence’s statesmanship has always been grounded in the American constitutional tradition of individual rights and limited government and a religious belief recognizing divine providence and the love of fellow humans. The baseless, ugly attacks on Pence represent in large part a broader unease with his religious convictions and advocacy of civil liberty.
Pence’s biggest failure, according to some of his detractors, was his signing into law Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which Sasso characterizes as allowing “a private business the right to restrict or limit services to LGBTQ persons on religious grounds.” Indeed, the law's passage led to the outright vilification of Pence and a public relations campaign against Indiana by activists far and wide.
The Indianapolis Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) took a lead role in this defamation campaign despite Jewish community surveys, such as the JCRC’s most recent local survey, showing that only 16% of the local community considered gay rights to be a high priority. Moreover, the JCRC testified before the state legislature that if RFRA were adopted “people could use their religion to justify almost any discriminatory action they choose to take in their public lives.” This testimony contradicts Indiana University law professor and former Democratic State Representative David Orentlicher’s recognition of the “serious misperceptions of what a RFRA actually can do,” stating that in fact “RFRAs have posed little, if any, threat to the public.” Significantly, Orentlicher recognized that Indiana’s RFRA was “designed to protect religious practice from discrimination by government.”
The arguments promoted by Sasso and the JCRC grossly misrepresent RFRA. The law neither intends to, nor enables, the wholesale denial of LGBT rights. Legal scholar Douglas Laycock helped write the federal RFRA legislation that was signed into law by President Bill Clinton. He notes that state religious freedom laws are mostly used for a wide range of reasons including “churches feeding the homeless ... Muslim women wearing scarves or veils. They're about Amish buggies. They're about Sabbath observers.”
The real underlying issue that inspired so much opposition to Pence was that RFRA could, if supported by the courts, allow individuals and businesses to adhere to their religious beliefs on the sanctity of marriage. Instead of openly declaring their position that same-sex marriage must be accepted regardless of one’s religious convictions, anti-RFRA activists avoided an honest debate and instead maligned Pence’s character with spurious accusations.
RFRA’s supporters, on the other hand, believed in the classic liberal notion that government should not compel citizens to abandon the free exercise of their religious beliefs in the public square. As such, RFRA in fact promoted both constitutional rights and traditional religious beliefs. This is precisely why constitutional scholar Daniel Conkle, a supporter of marriage equality, provided the key testimony supporting the legality of Indiana’s RFRA.
While individuals have the right to argue for the idea of marriage equality, trying to force citizens as RFRA’s opponents did to give up the free exercise of their religious beliefs in the public square is a shameful abandonment of fundamental rights guaranteed to every American.
There is a similar logic behind other attacks against Pence. For example, rather than acknowledge that some Syrian immigrants could pose a very real threat (as demonstrated now on a daily basis in Europe) to America in light of their anti-Semitic, anti-Christian, and anti-Western upbringing, Pence is demonized for refusing to allow such immigration at this time. Pence’s position is ethical and responsible as it seeks to protect American lives and liberties. This is plainly evident to all but those detractors who place a greater value on abstract universal rights than on the welfare of Jewish and non-Jewish Americans.
It is time that everyone understands the truth about Governor Mike Pence. He is a good and compassionate man. He is an honorable statesman devoted to the U.S. Constitution and its tenets of individual freedom, and he is a true friend to Jews in Indiana and around the world.
Elliot Bartky, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Political Science at Indiana University-Purdue University, Fort Wayne and President of the Jewish American Affairs Committee of Indiana.
Allon Friedman, M.D. is Associate Professor of Medicine at Indiana University School of Medicine and Vice President of the Jewish American Affairs Committee of Indiana.