Orthodox Support Bush’s Marriage Amendment, but Don’t Relish the Fight

If President Bush hoped to galvanize American conservatives with his proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, it has had the reverse effect among Jews.

Jewish liberals are raring for a fight, while the more traditional streams are less than enthusiastic.

David Luchins, a longtime vice president of the Orthodox Union, said he believed his organization would support the amendment but would not be among its most vocal backers.

“This is not a battle, this is not a fight we’re looking forward to or we’re enjoying,” Luchins said at the Jewish Council for Public Affairs plenum in Boston, where organizational officials coincidentally were debating the issue Tuesday at the very hour of Bush’s announcement.

“If we are to prevent the meaning of marriage from being changed forever, our nation must enact a constitutional amendment to protect marriage in America,” Bush said Tuesday, throwing down the gauntlet to Congress and the states to push the issue forward.

Liberal groups were outraged at what they say is an encroachment on a document many consider sacrosanct — the U.S. Constitution.

“It raises the issue of tampering with the Constitution, and that is of significant concern to this community,” said David Saperstein, the executive director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

Luchins faced tough questions from the crowd in the conference room at the gathering of the umbrella group for local community relations councils and national organizations. In the audience were gay-rights supporters and students attending the Hillel Forum on Public Policy, which took place simultaneously with the JCPA forum.

Luchins said he believed the Orthodox community should do its best not to be “dragged into the pits of gay bashing and demoralization” in a national debate on the marriage amendment.

“I will do everything in my power to make it crystal clear that the Torah teaches that every human being is important,” Luchins said.

The Orthodox Union and Agudath Israel of America are not expected to formally join the Alliance for Marriage, a broad coalition of groups supporting the amendment, because some members of the board of advisers are linked to anti-Israel and anti-Semitic organizations.

Abba Cohen, Washington director and counsel of Agudath Israel of America, which represents fervently Orthodox Jews, said his organization has supported the amendment for several years. He applauded Bush’s announcement.

The Orthodox Union is expected to formally decide to back the amendment within the next few weeks.

Nathan Diament, director of the O.U.’s Institute for Public Affairs, said the Orthodox had never sought a battle that divides more than it unites.

“We feel this has been forced upon us by the gay-rights activists, and they are the ones bringing litigation and forcing this issue upon the American people,” said Diament, who turned down an invitation to attend the White House announcement in order to attend the Boston plenum.

The Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston has come out in support of the Massachusetts court ruling supporting gay marriage, and the organization, along with the local chapter of the Anti-Defamation League, has actively backed gay marriage.

“We need to be proactive and need to be setting this forward as the pre-eminent civil rights issue for the next century,” said Nancy Kaufman, the Boston JCRC director.

Kaufman said Jews could help make the case by determining how the debate is cast.

“When you discuss it as a civil-rights issue and not a religious issue, people begin to see it.”

JCPA did not formally debate gay marriage at its resolution session Monday evening, but the issue of rights for gays did intrude into a resolution supporting hate-crimes legislation and citing sexual orientation.

The resolution’s final language said: “The inclusion of any group in hate-crime laws need not be viewed as an expression of support for that group, but rather as a recognition of the reality that certain segments of our society are subject to significantly greater incidences of hate crimes.”

The qualification was needed to achieve consensus.

Robert Leikind, ADL’s New England regional director, said he was unsure how much this issue would divide the Jewish community, or occupy its time and resources.

“It’s not clear to me to what level this is going to test our relationships” with Christians and others, he said. “But it is likely to be a wedge issue that will drive the development of new relationships and new partnerships.”

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