Religious freedom vs. gay rights: The picture-book edition

March 6, 2014

By Julie Wiener

St. Louis Jewish Light: Celebrating A Half-Century of Independent Jewish News

Image of Elisabeth Kushner reading "The Purim Superhero" to two kids. Two adults look on.

Author Elisabeth Kushner reads “The Purim Superhero” at a book-release party at Afikomen Judaica in Berkeley, Calif. (Keshet)

Where is the line between respecting diverse religious beliefs and violating the rights and dignity of gays and lesbians?

The question came to the forefront last week with Arizona’s SB 1062, which the governor vetoed after it provoked a national uproar. The Arizona bill, described by its detractors as the “right-to- discriminate” law, would have enabled business owners to deny service to gay customers and be shielded from civil lawsuits if they were motivated by “sincerely held” religious beliefs.

But it is also at the center of a debate currently playing out between Keshet, a Jewish LGBT advocacy group, and the PJ Library, the program that distributes free Jewish children’s books in North America and beyond, over its handling of a new picture book featuring a two-dad family.

“The Purim Superhero,”by Elisabeth Kushner, was published by Kar-Ben Publishing last year after the manuscript won a contest for Jewish-themed books with LGBT characters sponsored by Keshet. It’s about a boy who turns to his two fathers for advice after his Hebrew school classmates tell him he can’t dress up as an alien for Purim.

PJ Library selected it as one of its featured books this month, but as an extra book distributed only to those who requested it — which, apparently, many parents did: All 2,200 copies PJ had purchased were requested within 36 hours, according to an article in The Boston Globe.

On the PJ Library blog, a trustee of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, the program’s founder and largest funder, explained that the decision to make “The Purim Superhero” by request only was made because, “like it or not, parents in our community have differing opinions about same-sex marriage and how or when it is discussed with children.”

The blog post likened distributing “The Purim Superhero” without parents first requesting it to visiting a family whose parents, “based on their sincerely held religious belief” have “made clear that a certain subject is taboo” and then bringing their child a gift that touches on the subject.

Idit Klein, executive director of Keshet, sees it differently and has told reporters that while offering the book was a “positive step,” she was also disappointed that it was by request only.

“I told [PJ Library] that this is demeaning to same-sex couples and their families — that there’s something so threatening and wrong about our families that children can only see them in a book if a parent requests it,” she told the Globe.

While the PJ Library blog post didn’t identify which members of the Jewish community might be offended by “The Purim Superhero,” the program was presumably concerned about offending Orthodox Jews, the only segment of the American Jewish community in which the traditional, homosexual-activity-is-wrong perspective remains strong.

The Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist movements all recognize same-sex marriage and allow openly gay men and women to be ordained as clergy. The 2013 American Jewish Committee Survey of American Jewish Opinion found overwhelming support for same-sex marriage: 71 percent of American Jews believe same-sex marriage should be “legal across the country,” 11 percent believe it should be “banned across the country” and 18 percent believe each state should decide for itself.