Become a digitalPLUS subscriber. 99¢ for 4 weeks.

Keeping The Faith: Jolts En Route To Religious Acceptance

Minority GroupsChristianityLaws and LegislationInterreligious DialogueMormonismJudaismRoman Catholicism

Stephen L. Saltzman was at New York University, almost done with his studies in a tax law program, when a well-meaning Irish Catholic instructor invited him to interview at a large Boston law firm where he worked.

But when Saltzman got to Massachusetts, there was no interview. Nor would there be.

The reason had nothing to do with his grades, his attitude or his potential. It had everything to do with his last name.

It was 1962, and Saltzman, who is Jewish, was knocking on the door of a firm run by Protestant lawyers.

"Bob McDonough, who flew in every Saturday from Boston to teach a course, knew I was thinking about Boston. So he invites me up for an interview to his firm in Boston, and I get up there, and he apologizes.

"He says, 'I really made a big mistake. This firm isn't ready for Saltzman; it hasn't digested McDonough.'"

McDonough was Irish Catholic, and that was almost as bad as being Jewish to some of these large law practices, Saltzman said.

"He was the first non-WASP in the firm … and he was having a tough enough time getting comfortable in that firm."

But McDonough did send Saltzman to a friend of his, a tax lawyer in New Haven, where Saltzman would begin a career that has lasted more than a half-century.

Religious liberties were written into Connecticut's constitution in 1818, 27 years after the federal Bill of Rights assured freedom of religion. But laws alone could not guarantee the end to outright bias, harassment or restrictive behind-the-scenes practices that shut out Jews or other religious minorities from living in certain neighborhoods, playing at certain golf courses, working at certain jobs. The faith-based discrimination Saltzman recounted was outside Connecticut, but the battle against religious intolerance knows no state boundaries.

Connecticut's Gold Coast was the backdrop for the Oscar-winning 1947 movie on anti-Semitism, "Gentlemen's Agreement." Just this month, UConn researchers reported on studies that suggest religious references on a resume can hurt a candidate's chance of getting a job in both areas studied, the South and the Northeast, with a particular bias against Muslims.

It Was 'A Shocker'

In a recent interview in his law office at Brenner, Saltzman & Wallman, in New Haven, Saltzman, now 77, said anti-Semitic hiring practices were not uncommon at the large law firms back then. NYU classmates had similar stories.

One, named Grossman, who had attended both Brandeis University and Boston College, was told flat out that his "kind" wasn't welcome to apply. Another Jewish classmate went to Lubbock, Texas, for a job and was asked if his wife was Jewish too.

"My situation wasn't unique," Saltzman said. "We were trading stories of the experiences we were getting. That's what got me interested in the ADL. They were the one organization that was standing up not just for Jewish rights but rights of all."

The ADL, or Anti-Defamation League, had a regional office in New Haven and does to this day. By 1964, Saltzman was an active member. He still is, and served a stint as board chairman. He is also a past president and a past chairman of the Greater New Haven Jewish Federation.

Before he was turned away in Boston, Saltzman had not been oblivious to anti-Semitism. As a child in Providence in the 1940s, there were incidents.

"I grew up on the east side, which were a lot of Irish and Jewish. … Coming home from grammar school we'd cross paths with the kids from Holy Name, and they were all rip roaring over 'Christ killers' at Easter time. … They'd pick a fight. Walking home, which was only five, six blocks, and you'd end up in a fight or running from a fight."

"So I had a little of that experience, but nothing that I felt would shape my life or anything like that. But what occurred coming out of the NYU tax program was a shocker."

Over the years, Saltzman went on speaking engagements at men's clubs and other groups about ADL publications with names like "Danger on the Right," "Christian Beliefs and Anti-Semitism," and "Some of My Best Friends." In 1993 he was awarded the regional ADL's "Torch of Liberty" for outstanding work.

Saltzman, now 77, said he has seen improvements in levels of religious tolerance, particularly in his profession.

"In the law, it's dramatic," he said.

"I think it started to change because of the pool of available talent, they couldn't turn their backs on women, because more and more women were graduating law school and doing quite well," Saltzman said. "They couldn't continue to turn their backs on Jews, though some chose to, but the pool was there, and too many other firms were becoming successful, having integrated the firm.'

"Firms that would not have interviewed me, for instance … they've got a normal mixture of everybody," he said.

Accepted, But Still Apart

When The Courant was founded in 1764, Connecticut was a colony of Congregationalists, government-sanctioned, and had been for many years. There was a history of intolerance toward other faiths.

In the mid-1600s, non-churchgoers could be fined, blasphemers and heretics could be punished. "Quakers who might offend four times by communication with citizens were to have their tongues bored through with a hot iron," Paul Wakeman Coons wrote in his 1936 history "The Achievement of Religious Liberty in Connecticut." "A few unfortunates suffered under these laws."

(Aided by the spiritual revival of the Great Awakening, Anglicans and Baptists made some inroads in the early 1700s. Methodists appeared in 1789. Catholics, who would go on to dominate the state's religious landscape, would not have their first resident priest until 1829. The first permanent community of Jews settled in Hartford in the 1840s.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints didn't even exist when The Courant started up; it only came into being in 1830. The Mormon population in Connecticut was just 0.5 percent of the general population in 2010, according to the Association of Religion Data Archives.

That put author Jeff Benedict, who was born in New London in 1966, raised Mormon in Connecticut and once ran for Congress here, very much in a religious minority. But not a persecuted one, he said in a recent interview. Practicing his religion — which forbids alcohol and tobacco use, all forms of gambling — kept him apart from his peers at times growing up, but his faith story is one of acceptance and tolerance.

He was born into the Catholic Church and a family of Italian heritage. His mother converted, and he with her, when he was about 5 and living in East Lyme. "It was a big deal, because at that time, there were very few Mormons in Connecticut," he said. "Most people didn't know anything about Mormons, including my family."

There were no other Mormons in his grade school, and only one at Waterford High School when a family whose father worked at the Coast Guard Academy moved in.

"I didn't ever think I was discriminated against because of my religion," he said. "I also didn't wear my religion on my sleeve."

There were awkward moments in high school. His freshmen year he went to a party where kids were drinking Heineken, playing poker. "These are things we don't do," he said. So he stopped going to parties.

There was one incident of ridicule — an aberration, he said, but its memory stings not especially because his faith was insulted but because of his response.

"The only time I every felt ashamed and somewhat hurt about my religion, in my senior year in high school, we were studying American history and contemporary affairs. When we got to Mormonism, basically what we covered were Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and polygamy … it became an opportunity for ridicule. A lot of students were laughing … as the laughter escalated, I kind of shrunk down in my seat, quite literally."

The teacher, Benedict said, egged them on a bit. Eventually, as Benedict recalls, the instructor said, "I don't imagine any of you in here even know a Mormon.'

"One my friends said, 'Well, Benedict's a Mormon.' I said, 'I'm not a Mormon.' I denied it. I said, 'I'm not a Mormon, I'm a Catholic.' As soon as I said that, everyone turned around. It was over. But when the class was over, I felt horrible.

"I've never done that since."

Benedict left for college but returned to East Lyme to start a family, write, and, in 2002, run against Joe Courtney for the Democratic nomination in the 2nd Congressional District – the first Mormon in Connecticut to run for Congress, Benedict said.

"By then, I'd written books and become kind of a public figure," he said. His religion became an issue in the campaign, but only because people were curious, Benedict said."The media, the public, the Democrats at large, were supportive, gracious. I never felt ridiculed, slighted."

"I have often said to many of my Mormon friends, from the West, that Connecticut was a great place to grow up and be a Mormon. Because I think it was … easier for me to live my religion in Connecticut that had I grown up in Utah.

"I think the reason is, I was the only one, I had to work at it. … it required me to make major decisions at a young age in who I was and who I wanted to be. People were accepting of me. I don't know if that's because [where I grew up was] very blue collar, a lot of immigrant families like mine, and where we had common ground, like sports, and if you were good at those things, and fit in the neighborhood like I was, nobody really cared."

He said he has spoken to other Mormons from Connecticut — including former NFL quarterback Steve Young, who lived in Greenwich — and hears the same thing.

"Now that I'm an adult, I still have ties to people I grew up with," said Benedict, who now lives in Virginia with his wife, Lydia, and their four children. "The ways that my friends treat me who I've known since I was a boy, are incredibly respectful and complimentary. It's something I look back on with terrific fondness."

Connecticut Mormons now number 15,352, the church says, in 34 congregations. Connecticut's first Mormon temple is under construction in Farmington.

Explaining Her Faith After 9/11

There was a particular concern for the treatment of Muslims in Connecticut, as elsewhere, after Sept. 11, 2001, when anger at the terrorist attacks ran high.

Dr. Ayse K. Coskun, a Muslim, and now an associate research scientist at Yale School of Medicine, was flying from Turkey to New York on Sept. 11.

"We were a few hours away from landing, and they said we have a problem. For some reason, JFK was shut down and we would be landing in Canada," said Coskun, a native of Andana, Turkey. "A little while later they said the entire continent was shut down."

No one in the cabin seemed to know what was going on.

They turned around and flew back to Europe, to Frankfurt, where they learned of the attacks only after they were ushered into a room and saw the news on TV. Everyone just collapsed, she said. People were screaming, crying. The significance didn't sink in for her right away.

But she said she and Muslim acquaintances knew what they had to do.

"We decided that we'd do everything in our power to make it understood, that as Muslims we did not approve of the attack, we would welcome people into our lives so they could see what kind of people we were, and we had nothing to do with terrorism."

On the day of the attacks, Coskun was to catch a connecting flight in New York to Houston for a new job. Once she was finally established in Houston, she spoke at churches and synagogues to get the word out.

"Interfaith work became kind of a second job to me," she said. She knows that as a woman who wears a head scarf, she is very visibly Muslim, and wanted to be able to answer questions about her faith when people asked.

Her interest led her to enroll in Hartford Seminary for a distance learning program. Six months into the program, in 2008, she took a job at Yale, and completed her degree in Islamic studies and Christian-Muslim relations.

"It's a truly interfaith environment," she said. "All over the U.S., all Muslims are more conscious of the necessity of interfaith dialogue. ... They realized, people didn't know [much] about Islam. … the need to kind of clear their name, I guess."

She volunteers with the Peace Islands Institute (www.peaceislands.org), which fosters understanding for people of various ethnic, cultural and religious backgrounds. It has a chapter in New Haven.

Coskun, 38, said she can sometimes sense the anxiety some strangers feel because of her looks and dress, but she has not felt any outright discrimination or intolerance in either her professional or personal life. "I have been very lucky, I guess. … I'm at home here."

Conscientious Objector

Nationwide, while the Bill of Rights assured the free exercise of religion, the 14th Amendment in 1868 guaranteed religious civil rights through equal protection under the law.

Historians cite 1818 as a landmark year for religious freedoms in Connecticut. A new state constitution declared: "The exercise and enjoyment of religious profession and worship, without discrimination, shall forever be free to all persons in this state. … No preference shall be given by law to any Christian sect or mode of worship."

The state's commitment to religious liberty was tested in a 1940 U.S. Supreme Court case that was decided in favor of Newton Cantwell, a Jehovah's Witness in New Haven who had gone into a Catholic neighborhood and played a phonograph record that attacked the church as a "racket," a "wicked power" and a "fraud and deception," according to contemporary news accounts. The court overturned a breach-of-peace charge, noting the lack of any violence and citing the constitutional guarantee to religious liberty.

A faith-based fight of a different sort played out in Connecticut just a few years ago, precipitating a federal filing of its own.

At its center was U.S. Navy Ensign Michael Izbicki, who grew up in a non-denominational church in California, felt compelled by Sept. 11 to join the military, graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 2008 — but later decided that his deepening religious convictions made him no longer able to serve.

In 2009, he was asked during a psychological test: If ordered, could he launch a nuclear missile?

He said he could not.

Izbicki filed for conscientious objector status in October 2009 and March 2010 — and was rejected both times. During that period, he was reassigned to the Naval Submarine School in Groton.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut filed a federal lawsuit on Izbicki's behalf in November 2010, framing the issue as a battle for religious freedom.

To gain designation as a conscientious objector, Izbicki would have to prove that he opposed all forms of war based on his deeply held religious beliefs, and that his objection did not exist before he entered the service. His beliefs would be under scrutiny.

The ACLU lawyers argued not only that the Navy had no basis to doubt the sincerity of Izbicki's beliefs, but that the Navy's behavior during the hearing process was out of line. For instance, it said, the Navy showed "extreme religious bias against [Izbicki's] Christian beliefs and the beliefs of his Quaker witnesses, likening Quakerism to a Jim Jones-like cult," among other things. The ACLU also said that the Navy used a Catholic catechism to test the sincerity of Izbicki's beliefs, even though he is not Catholic, and that it faulted him for being unable to recite all Ten Commandments.

Navy chaplains, ordained ministers and others "confirmed the depth and sincerity of his beliefs," the ACLU said.

The Navy offered Izbicki service as a non-combatant, but he declined. By wearing the uniform, he believed he would be complicit in the Navy's actions, the suit said.

The following February, the Navy changed its mind, granted Izbicki's request for conscientious objector status and gave him an honorable discharge. But Izbicki must pay back his education costs.

Izbicki, 28, now lives in California, where he is studying machine learning in a doctoral program at the University of California at Riverside. He said he attends a Brethren in Christ church and is part of a group called Let's Talk Peace, organized by the Mennonite church. He keeps a blog where he occasionally writes about why he left the service.

Asked if his support came from a specific interest group, he responded, "Actually, non-Christians tend to be much more understanding and supportive than Christians."

And he hasn't lost touch with friends from the service.

In fact, reached by e-mail days before he was to be married earlier this month, he said two of his groomsmen were friends from the Naval Academy.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
Related Content
Minority GroupsChristianityLaws and LegislationInterreligious DialogueMormonismJudaismRoman Catholicism
Comments
Loading