Focus on Issues: Religious Liberals Key Lobbyists in Battle for Gay Civil Marriages

The Reform movement is coming out as a major player – and the only audible voice in the organized Jewish community – in the state-by-state battle being waged over legalizing gay marriages.

The Reconstructionist movement has also endorsed gay civil – as well as religious – marriages. But as a far smaller movement, it is likely to have less of an impact on the grass-roots lobbying effort over the issue.

In an effort to pre-empt an expected decision from the Hawaii Supreme Court that would legalize gay marriages, 19 states have legislation pending that would require the state not to recognize a same-sex marriage even if such a wedding is legally conducted in another state.

On Feb. 21 South Dakota became the first state to enact such a law, according to Evan Wolfson, director of The Marriage Project of the Lambda Legal Defense & Education Fund, a gay-rights organization. Support for Lambda from religious leaders on this issue is predominantly Jewish.

The legislatures of two states – Maine and New Mexico – have rejected such bills, he said.

A handful of municipalities across the country enable same-sex couples to register as domestic partnerships, which have none of the legal rights and responsibilities as marriage does.

As the state battles continue, the Christian Coalition recently kicked off “The National Campaign to Protect Marriage.”

At a Feb. 10 rally in Des Moines, which concluded the lowa caucus campaign, the group described the possibility of civil marriage for homosexuals as “destructive, demoralizing and disruptive.”

Politically and religiously conservative Jewish groups have not, to date, formally endorsed the effort, though each of the Republican presidential candidates except Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) has.

Rising Republican star candidate Pat Buchanan said, “We can’t put [gay marriage] into law in any country that we continue to call God’s country.”

“People are couching this very often in religious terms, so I think religious people of conscience have to weigh in here,” said Rabbi Lynne Landsberg, associate director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center.

Lobbying on all sides of the issue has intensified because of a decision expected by the end of the year from the Hawaii Supreme Court that will, in all likelihood, recognize as valid civil marriages between same-sex couples.

In 1993, Hawaii’s Supreme Court said the state’s refusal to grant marriage licenses to three same-sex couples appeared to violate the state’s constitutional guarantee of “equal protection” under the law.

The court directed the state government to demonstrate a compelling reason for the discrimination based on sexual orientation, which it is not expected to be able to do, said Wolfson, who is working as co-counsel on the case, Baehr vs. Lewin.

Testimony in the case will be heard in July.

Aggressive lobbying on behalf of the issue at every level could end up being an important factor in how the legal cases and legislation play out, say those working on the effort.

The Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the Reform movement’s congregational arm, endorsed a resolution at its 1993 convention calling upon federal, state and local governments to “afford partners in committed lesbian and gay relationships the means of legally acknowledging such relationships.”

At a Feb. 4 meeting, the executive committee of the movement’s Commission on Social Action voted to interpret that resolution to mean that the movement supports gay civil marriage. The vote set the movement’s Religious Action Center in lobbying mode.

Working closely with Lambda, it has contacted Reform rabbis in each state where legislation is pending, providing them with background material and urging them to get their congregations involved on the ground.

The Women’s Rabbinic Network, an organization of female Reform rabbis, endorsed the same position last May at its conference, said Rabbi Denise Eger, spiritual leader of Congregation Kol Ami, a predominantly gay and lesbian Reform temple in West Hollywood, Calif.

The UAHC “sees these efforts of the religious right as an assault on the civil rights of these Americans,” said a letter that went out to the rabbis signed by Rabbi David Saperstein, director of RAC, and by Landsberg.

In 1993, the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation endorsed religious and civil gay marriages. It has signed friend-of-the-court briefs in several states on behalf of gay couples trying to get civil recognition of their partnership, said Rabbi Mordechai Liebling, that group’s executive director.

Although the Lambda list of religious leaders and groups supporting its efforts is largely composed of Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis and synagogues, it also includes Protestant, Unitarian and breakaway Catholic groups.

Activists on the issue believe that action could be essential to how the case turns out.

“It really, really will matter what the Reform movement says in amicus briefs and in testimony at legislative hearings, not just at the polls and in lobbying legislators,” said Rabbi Margaret Wenig.

Wenig, spiritual leader of Beth Am, The People’s Temple, a Reform congregation in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan, drafted a resolution endorsing same-sex civil marriage that will be considered by the Reform movement’s rabbinic organization at its convention in Philadelphia in March.

Wenig and other Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis point to how important the religious endorsement of same-sex marriages was in a recent court case involving an Atlanta Jewish woman, Robin Shachar, That case, however, turned on marriage as a religious, rather than civil, institution.

Shachar had been offered a job right out of law school with the Georgia district attorney’s office. Between the time she was offered the job and was supposed to start working, she and her lesbian partner had a religious wedding at their Reconstructionist synagogue in Atlanta.

When her future boss learned of it, he withdrew the job offer.

She took the case to court, and in a decision earlier this year, won.

The court’s decision clearly stated that part of the reason she won was that the religious denomination with which she is affiliated accepts same-sex marriages, and that it is part of the free exercise of religion for her to have married as an expression of her religious beliefs.

Leaders of Agudath, Israel of America, an organization representing the fervently Orthodox, are now debating how they can work against the legalization of homosexual marriages through court cases such as Shachar’s without arguing against the Jewish interest in constitutional protections for the free exercise of religion, said an Agudah source.

Other major Jewish religious groups including the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, have taken no formal stand on the current battle.

Rabbi Daniel Lapin, president of the conservative group Toward Tradition, has come out on his twice-a-week Seattle talk show against legalizing gay marriage, but his organization has not formally endorsed the position.

“As a nonprofit organization, we’re not allowed to be out there lobbying, wringing people’s arms trying to convince them,” said Yarden Weidenfeld, executive director of Toward Tradition.

Even within the Reform movement, the issue of homosexual marriage remains controversial, to some degree. Officiation at commitment ceremonies, as the religious weddings are called, will be discussed and debated at the convention of the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis, at the end of March.

The Reform movement and the Reconstructionist movements currently allow their rabbis to officiate at commitment ceremonies. The Conservative and Orthodox movements do not, though some Conservative rabbis have performed them.

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