In 2011 I was the chair of the Ethics Commission for the City of Norwich, CT. An ethics complaint was filed against a member of the City Council. In short, the Rotary Club had asked the city for permission to hold a carnival on the town green and the permit was denied. A few weeks later the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) applied for similar permission and was also denied. Then the city council member in question, who was a member of the VFW, spoke to the official who denied the permit and the official reversed his decision. A member of the public heard about the situation and filed the complaint.
When we began to investigate the complaint we soon ran into a problem. I was a member of the Rotary Club. My vice chair’s wife was also a member of the Rotary Club. The wife of one of the other commission members was running for City Council and was therefore running against the accused council member. All three of us decided to recuse ourselves from dealing with the complaint because of our closeness to the situation (although the Rotary Club was not actually a party to the complaint) which meant that three of the seven Ethics Commission members were recused. The problem was that a hearing panel on an ethics complaint required five commissioners and we only had four commissioners who had not recused themselves. The problem was resolved when both the accused and the complainant agreed to let the case be heard by a panel of four.
I said in my drasha Saturday morning that I absolutely believe that those in our country who feel that abortion is murder are sincere. Their religious tradition teaches them that human life and human rights begin at conception. But there is more than one religious tradition in this country, the First Amendment prohibits the establishment of a state religion, and Judaism teaches that full personhood begins at birth and that abortion is required when it is necessary to save the health (including the mental health) of a pregant woman.
In 1998, a young lawyer named Amy Coney Barrett published an article in the Marquette Law Review dealing with Catholic judges and the death penalty. She noted that capital punishment is contrary to Roman Catholic teachings and a devout Catholic judge could not impose or affirm the death penalty without violating his or her conscience. But while a Catholic judge has a moral obligation to follow their conscience and Church teachings, they also take an oath to uphold the law. So it could happen that on the basis of the law, imposition of the death penalty was the right decision, but in doing so the judge would violate their own conscience. The only solution in such a situation, she wrote, was for the judge to recuse.
She was right back then. I understand that devout Catholic or evangelical judges (although all six justices who voted to affirm Dobbs are Catholic) may not be able to bring themselves to vote in favor of a right to abortion even though as many of them noted in their confirmation hearings, that right was until Friday “settled law” and “well established” for almost fifty years. But the solution is to recuse, not to impose an unpopular sectarian position on the vast majority of Americans who do not agree with it, many of whom follow religious teachings that permit and sometimes even require abortion in certain cases.
As always, if I can do anything for you or you need to talk, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 301-977-0768 rather than through the synagogue office. Although I am working primarily from home, I am happy to meet you at the synagogue by appointment. I have been spending more time in the synagogue recently but if you want to speak with me it’s best to make an appointment rather than assuming I will be there when you stop by.
Rabbi Charles L. Arian