WASHINGTON (Jan. 25)
President Bush has thrown down the gauntlet on the issue of gay marriage, and many Jewish groups are lining up for the fight.
As part of his State of the Union address last week, Bush suggested support for a constitutional amendment codifying marriage as a union only between a man and a woman. The call came after jurists Bush described as “activist judges” ruled that gays and lesbians have a constitutional right to marry.
“On an issue of such great consequence, the people’s voice must be heard,” Bush said. “If judges insist on forcing their arbitrary will upon the people, the only alternative left to the people would be the constitutional process. Our nation must defend the sanctity of marriage.”
The issue was put on the front burner by a Massachusetts court ruling in November. Under the state constitution, the ruling said, gay couples have the right to wed.
The developments are coupled with election-year politics in which Bush is appealing to his conservative base by proposing a $1 billion initiative to promote heterosexual marriage.
Among the major American organized religions, Judaism is one of the more progressive when it comes to issues of homosexuality.
The Reform movement, which welcomes gay clergy, determined in 2000 that gay unions were “worthy of affirmation through appropriate Jewish ritual.”
The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s Committee on Law and Standards is expected to begin debate this year on issues relating to the status of homosexuals. Though it will not specifically discuss gay marriage or the ordination of gay rabbis, the debate is considered the first step in that process.
The Orthodox and more traditional Jewish denominations see no room for debate on the religious prohibition against homosexuality.
Many Jewish groups have supported the Massachusetts decision. The Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston earlier this month urged the state government to pass laws accepting same-sex marriage, in keeping with the court ruling.
Many Jewish groups opposed the Defense of Marriage Act, which President Clinton signed in 1996, and Jewish leaders suggested that they would play a large role in opposing a similar constitutional amendment.
“Our position has been that we support efforts to extend all rights of civil marriage to couples in domestic partnerships,” said Steve Freedman, director of legal affairs for the Anti-Defamation League, using a term often used to describe gay unions.
The National Council of Jewish Women has filed briefs in support of gay marriage in several court cases. The group suggests that civil unions, a legal status that gives domestic partners some legal rights, would not be sufficient.
“Gay and lesbian couples in this country are forming partnerships, having children and creating families and will continue to do so,” the group’s board of directors said in an October 2003 statement. “To deny couples in these committed relationships the same legal benefits accorded spouses in heterosexual marriages is prejudicial, counterproductive and morally offensive.”
David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said he believed several mainline Christian groups would join civil-rights and civil-liberties organizations in fighting an amendment.
Many groups do not know exactly what position they will take because an amendment has yet to be introduced.
The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America supports an amendment. Nathan Diament, director of the O.U.’s Institute for Public Affairs, said he agrees with President Bush that litigation is thrusting the issue to the fore.
“There is a huge issue of immense social implications,” Diament said. “It requires a great deal of debate.”
Diament said he was unsure how much time or effort the Orthodox Union and other Orthodox groups would expend in support of a constitutional amendment.
The issue is likely to stay in the public eye for a while. A constitutional amendment requires the support of three-fourths of the 50 state legislatures, a lengthy process.
Saperstein said the amendment proposal could benefit for gay rights. He likened it to the push in the 1970s for an Equal Rights Amendment.
While that amendment never passed, the debate changed the mind-set of many people, Saperstein said.
“I hate to see this amendment go forward,” he said. “But if it does, I think it would be a debate that makes America a better country and improves the situation for gays and lesbians.”