WASHINGTON (JTA) — Is it the first step in forging a possible compromise on one of the most divisive social issues of the day, or merely an intriguing idea that won’t break the impasse?
Judging from the reaction of Jewish groups to a proposal that would recognize same-sex civil unions while carving out an exemption for religious organizations, it’s not yet clear. Some said the proposal might ease the tension between supporters and opponents of gay rights; others believed the time wasn’t yet right for such a deal — or showed no interest in making one.
The tension between gay rights and religious liberty is “the mega-cultural issue of the decade,” said Nathan Diament, the Orthodox Union’s public policy director, and cuts across a number of areas.
For example, some religious conservatives, including Orthodox Jewish groups, want an exemption included in any legislation that would outlaw employment discrimination against gays — so that, for instance, a Catholic church would not be forced to hire a gay priest. Meanwhile, supporters of gay rights have opposed a bill that would protect the religious rights of individuals in the workplace, arguing that the legislation might, for example, allow a worker to refuse services to gays and lesbians.
But the most contentious issue is gay marriage, which is the subject of the compromise proposed by Jonathan Rauch, a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution, and David Blankenhorn, president of the Institute of American Values.
In a New York Times op-ed last month they wrote that “Congress would bestow the status of federal civil unions on same-sex marriages and civil unions granted at the state level, thereby conferring upon them most or all of the federal benefits and rights of marriage. But there would be a condition: Washington would recognize only those unions licensed in states with robust religious-conscience exceptions, which provide that religious organizations need not recognize same-sex unions against their will. The federal government would also enact religious-conscience protections of its own. All of these changes would be enacted in the same bill.”
Such religious-conscience exemptions could include everything from allowing religious groups to deny health coverage to the partner of a gay employee to, more controversially, permit a clerk at a state office to decline to prepare a license for a gay civil union for religious reasons.
Rauch, who is Jewish and gay, said he and Blankenhorn intended the proposal as a way to “de-escalate” the tensions on both sides of the issue by giving both sides some of what they want while the larger issue continues to be debated.
Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said his organization didn’t have a position on the specific proposal but saw it as a positive development.
“This can be a very helpful step to ease the tensions,” said Saperstein, noting that “it’s very doubtful that either side can have what they want alone.”
He added, though, that while the Reform movement might accept civil unions as an intermediate step, it would still continue to push for full marriage equality for same-sex couples.
Richard Foltin, legislative director and counsel for the American Jewish Committee, also said his organization had no position on the compromise, but he was glad to hear people discussing and suggesting creative solutions.
Others weren’t as welcoming. The fervently Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America opposes any government recognition of same-sex relationships, including civil unions.
“We are opposed in principle to any legislation that in any way advances the notion that same-sex relationships are no different from the traditional relationship between a man and a woman that is most sublimely expressed in marriage,” said Agudah’s director of public affairs, Rabbi Avi Shafran.
Shafran added that the group fears not just being forced to recognize such relationships by the government, but also that recognizing such relationships would lead society to “accept homosexual relations as proper” and see traditionally religious groups as harboring “unwarranted prejudice.”
Diament was more open to the Rauch-Blankenhorn proposal. He did not endorse it, but did leave the door slightly ajar, noting that while the OU is opposed to legal recognition of same-sex marriage, it does not have a position on civil unions.
Still, Diament believes the ground is not yet right for such a compromise, pointing to some distrust that has developed between the two sides. For instance, after legislation was offered last year that would prevent condominium associations from making rules banning the posting of religious symbols — such as mezuzot — on residents’ doors, some gay rights supporters derailed the legislation, arguing that the bill could allow residents to post signs with derogatory messages about gays and lesbians.
Diament says that instead of pushing for a grand compromise, activists should first try to “forge some concrete solutions” on smaller issues that can act as “confidence-building measures and serve as a model” before delving into the larger issue of gay marriage.
On the other side of the issue, there’s the National Council of Jewish Women, which generally has come down on the side of gay rights activists in their battles with religious liberty advocates — unlike most other Jewish organizations, which either try to straddle the line between the two camps or are solidly on the religious liberty side.
The director of the NCJW’s Washington operations, Sammie Moshenberg, said her organization wasn’t interested in some sort of a deal at this point because it doesn’t support anything more than narrowly tailored religious exceptions — such as, for instance, a provision that would not require clergy to perform same-sex ceremonies.
“We are for marriage equality for same-sex couples,” she said, and believe that “civil rights laws should apply — with the exception of rare exemptions — across the board."
Some observers believe momentum is on Moshenberg’s side.
Marc Stern, the acting co-executive director at the American Jewish Congress, wrote an article in a personal capacity for the Orthodox Jewish jounal Tradition five years ago outlining a similar tradeoff to the Rauch-Blankenhorn proposal, and the various potential religious conflicts that could arise — from health benefits for a same-sex spouse to whether a synagogue would have to rent out its social hall to a same-sex couple.
Stern still thinks negotiating such a compromise is a good idea. And, he adds, with the idea of gay marriage becoming more and more accepted, religious groups “would be wise not to fight" a deal that allowed for civil unions.