Bella Abzug
Bella Abzug (Wikipedia).

Faith leaders call for passage of the Equality Act. 

Bella Abzug was a force of nature. She was the first Jewish woman elected to the U.S. Congress and a leader in the women’s movement. Abzug, who died 23 years ago, served three terms in the House of Representatives in the 1970s.

Ahead of her time, she championed progressive changes, co-authored and shepherded through passage of the Freedom of Information Act and the Right to Privacy Act. Abzug personified the beautiful Jewish tradition of tikkun olam by fighting for women’s rights and LGBTQ equality and nondiscrimination protections.

On May 14, it will be 47 years since the first LGBTQ civil rights legislation was introduced into Congress. Bella Abzug launched that effort with the Equality Act of 1974. With co-sponsorship of the bill by then-U.S. Rep. (and future New York City Mayor) Ed Koch, another venerated Jewish political and community leader, they pushed equality forward. Though this legislation has languished in the Senate, today, the LGBTQ and other progressive communities are urging Congress for protections following in the footsteps of the efforts of Abzug and Koch.

Across our country, in the absence of a federal law prohibiting LGBTQ discrimination, comprehensive nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ Americans have been passed state by state and city by city. While such progress is worth celebrating, a patchwork of civil rights laws is insufficient to guarantee consistent protections across the nation. That’s why I joined more than 200 faith leaders, including over 20 rabbis from communities across Michigan in signing a public letter that calls on elected leaders to support comprehensive nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ Americans.

The path toward LGBTQ equality is long, but a brighter and more equitable future is within reach. Today, Democrats and Republicans have introduced their versions of nondiscrimination protections that would update the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to explicitly ban LGBTQ discrimination in housing, employment, public education, federal funding and other areas of American life. In February, the House of Representatives passed the Equality Act for the second time, with bipartisan support. Most recently, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a historic first hearing on it.

While senators sparred over the details of the bill at the hearing, there’s a consensus among senators that LGBTQ discrimination is a real problem, and a bipartisan solution is needed to address this injustice. We cannot and must not lose sight of that common ground. As diverse of a nation as we are, granted we won’t agree on everything, but we all can agree that inaction is not an option.

Support Grows

Support across the country for a federal nondiscrimination law is at an all-time high. A recent Public Religion Research Institute survey shows that 76% of Americans favor laws that would protect LGBTQ Americans from discrimination, up from 72% in 2019. Support for LGBTQ protections transcends party lines, with 62% of Republicans, 79% of Independents and 85% of Democrats favoring such laws. 

As we celebrate Abzug’s extraordinary life as a fierce and early defender of LGBTQ equality, her life’s work offers important lessons for contemporary generations of elected officials, especially for Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, the first Jewish lawmaker to hold the title. The road to justice is not always easy. But if we can learn anything from Abzug, it is to be motivated by what the Torah demands, in teaching “Justice, justice you shall pursue,” and in so doing continue her mission to march forward on this path.

We have a real opportunity to finish the job Abzug started nearly 50 years ago and secure comprehensive nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ people across the land. Sen. Schumer has a historic opportunity to bring together the bipartisan support needed to deliver equality for all LGBTQ Americans.

Let us value bipartisanship. Let’s focus on the values that we all have in common in order to come to a solution combating the discrimination and marginalization of LGBTQ Americans.

Thriving free from discrimination isn’t just a Democratic or Republican ideal — it’s an American value, focused on freedom and opportunity for all. 

Rabbi Michael L. Moskowitz is spiritual leader at Temple Shir Shalom in West Bloomfield.

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