Christians owe a huge debt to the Jewish people. We share much of their spiritual heritage and Scripture, and we are commanded to “pray for the peace of Jerusalem.” (Psalm 122:6) Evangelicals are noted for their support for the nation of Israel.
On a broader public policy front, Christians ought to be the first to support the religious freedom of American Jews, not just because it is the right thing to do, but also because we understand the rueful wisdom of German Lutheran Pastor Martin Niemoller’s famous quotation (“First they came…”) from the post-World War II era. He chillingly warns us, informed by his life in Nazi Germany, of the consequences of ignoring injustices perpetrated by government on minority groups around us.
The Hasidic Jewish population of Airmont, New York, is one such group deserving of the attention of all people who believe in religious freedom. For the last 30 years, they have been subjected to government interference, harassment and intimidation on a scale designed to drive them out, and discourage other Orthodox Jews from moving in.
In fact, the entire reason that Airmont was incorporated as a city was to create a town where Orthodox Jews would not feel welcome. Knowing it could not blatantly advertise “no Jews allowed,” the city used zoning codes and housing ordinances to achieve its goal.
You see, the Hasidic Jews of Airmont don’t look or dress like everyone else; they don’t act like everyone else; and they don’t worship like everyone else. In fact, they worship in homes in their neighborhoods that are within walking distance, because they are forbidden by the tenets of their faith from driving on the Sabbath.
The city allegedly did everything it could to make their lives unbearable. It set up scheme after scheme to zone and regulate such house synagogues out of existence, while making it appear as if their religion had nothing to do with it. If the city could eliminate the house synagogues, the Jews would be forced to move.
That didn’t fool the U.S. Department of Justice, which sued the city twice over the years and obtained a decree forbidding the city’s conduct. When the decree expired, the city simply resumed its tactics as before.
The city’s Hasidic Jews are fighting back once again. In page after page of facts outlined in a new lawsuit filed in federal court, the systematic and years-long practices of the city officials to deny the religious freedom of the city’s Hasidic population in Airmont is revealed in all its ugliness.
First Liberty Institute, one of the nation’s premier religious liberty public interest law firms, is part of the legal team for the religious claimants. Keisha Russell is an attorney with First Liberty: “Airmont’s actions are undeniably a burden on the religious exercise of our clients,” she said in a statement. “The First Amendment and federal law protect the right of Americans to pray together in their homes free from unreasonable and intrusive government interference like we’ve seen in Airmont.”
As Niemoller’s quote reminds us, today it is house synagogues. Tomorrow the target may be Christian home bible studies, something not totally unfamiliar now.
Pray for the Jews of Airmont, New York. Their victory in this case will benefit people of all faiths or no faith at all, who simply want government to leave them alone to practice their beliefs as they see fit.