Like many North Carolinians, I’ve thought a lot about Senate Bill 2, which would allow magistrates, paid with public money, to choose to do only such aspects of their job that don’t jangle their religious sensibilities. I think about this especially because my own great-grandfather faced such an impediment to his work, and he handled it somewhat differently.
We called him Zayde, which means grandfather, but his name was Gershon. He was my mother’s father, and after enduring pogroms in Poland he emigrated from the shtetl to a land where he knew he could practice his religion as he saw fit and not be persecuted for it. A blacksmith, he got a job at Telling Bros., an east-side Cleveland dairy, around 1912. As I understand it, he shod the horses that pulled the milk carts and did repair work and other such blacksmithery.
The dairy expected him to work the standard six-day week. No problem – Zayde was willing. Thing is, it was a Monday-Saturday week. For Zayde, Saturday was a nonstarter: It was Shabbat, the Jewish sabbath. No Saturday, no job, so the foreman put Zayde on the street. Then a funny thing happened.
Mr. Telling, the owner of the dairy, heard he’d lost one of his good blacksmiths and why, and he sought Zayde out.
I imagine the conversation going something like this:
Decent, forward-thinking dairy owner: “Dude! Foreman tells me he fired you because you won’t work Saturdays – religion or something. That true?”
Zayde: “Yep. For Jews, the sabbath is Saturday. If Saturday work is part of the deal, I can’t hang.”
D,F-TDO: “OK, downer. But the horses don’t give a flip whether they’re shod on Saturday or Sunday. If Saturday is such a big thing for you, how would you feel about working Sunday?”
Z: “I’m in! See you then.”
I’m pretty sure the conversation did not go like this:
Z: “Yo, Capitalist! Working Shabbat gives me the sincerely held religious willies. Don’t care to do it. So you are obligated to allow me not to work Saturdays.”
Otherwise Decent, Forward-Thinking Dairy Owner: “Security! Check this man for my tools and then throw him in the alley.”
Zayde understood a fundamental thing: If you won’t do the job, you have to find another job. I’m delighted the dairy owner was kind, which meant that Zayde had a job and brought to Cleveland Bubbe and her five kids, including my Grandpa Louie, who had my mom, Rachel, who had me. Not to put too fine a point on it: No decent dairy owner? No me.
The lesson isn’t that the dairy owner had to accommodate Zayde’s religious habits – quite the opposite. The lesson is that Zayde understood what our legislators do not. It’s your job to find work that fits your religious restrictions (or to set them aside while you work), not the state’s job to make sure that all work accommodates all religious restrictions.
Some Orthodox Jews would find it impossible to work in the same space as women due to sincerely held religious beliefs. Does that mean the state has to provide them single-sex working space?
I deeply believe that virtually all the state’s magistrates are decent people who simply want to do their jobs and see the current law as offensive boobery. Still, if lawmakers override Gov. Pat McCrory’s veto, I urge all decent-thinking magistrates to, as the bill stipulates, deliver to their chief district court judges a notification of their recusal from performing marriages. Surely all readers of the Bible can find offense: at marrying the divorced? Marrying people of differing faiths? People of differing skin colors? Or, I don’t know, people of differing heights, weights, barbecue preferences or college basketball loyalties?
If all decent magistrates notify their chief district court judges that they are recusing themselves from marriage, due to whatever sincerely held religious objections they care to cite (I’d suggest the deeply held belief that all people ought to be treated with respect, but in this atmosphere that’s laughably implausible), North Carolina might find itself with an unconscionable marriage delay, and the decent people who have allowed this disgrace to move forward might be affected enough to show up and vote these knuckleheads out of office. Until then, we’ll have to just be ashamed of them.
I’m just glad Zayde isn’t here to see it. Mr. Telling would just shake his head.
Scott Huler of Raleigh is the author of six books of nonfiction. As a 2014-2015 Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT, he has been retracing the journey of John Lawson through the Carolinas in 1700-1701.