In Nashville, Hadassah Mulls Marriage Stance

By Christine Buttorff

Published September 22, 2006, issue of September 22, 2006.
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With Tennessee voters set to decide in November whether to pass a constitutional ban on gay marriage, the issue is creating tension between religious and political values for many women in Nashville’s Jewish community.

The struggle played out last week as about 75 individuals, from both Hadassah and the community at large, turned out for a September 14 panel discussion on the argument.

“I think at the moment, there’s not a consensus,” Susan Pankowsky said. Pankowsky heads the Nashville chapter of Hadassah, which is a national women’s organization and the Jewish community’s largest membership group.

This past January, Hadassah’s national board adopted a position opposing legislation or constitutional amendments that would ban same-sex marriage, but not all its members in Nashville are comfortable with the policy. While the local chapters in theory are supposed to follow the national policy directives, Pankowsky said that “we haven’t come to a consensus on most issues unless it has to do with Israel.”

Tennessee is one of eight states that will be voting this fall on whether to ban gay marriage. More than 40 states already have a law or constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.

The local Hadassah chapter held its panel discussion on the controversy at the Gordon Jewish Community Center in the leafy suburbs west of downtown Nashville. While invitations were extended to individuals representing viewpoints from all sides of the issue, none of the proponents of the marriage amendment accepted. The panel included two parents of gay or lesbian children, a local rabbi, an attorney, the director of the Tennessee Equality Project, which opposes the amendment, and a representative from Hadassah.

Shelley Klein, Hadassah’s advocacy director, explained that the national board decided to oppose constitutional amendments banning gay marriage because the board views those amendments as discriminatory.

“An amendment which limits the rights of people is really just something that is against the spirit of the constitution,” Klein said.

Written to codify “marriage” as being between one man and one woman, the proposed amendment would enshrine in Tennessee’s constitution a law already on the books in the state. Proponents of the measure say they want to prevent “activist judges” from ruling against the existing law and that they don’t want the state to recognize same-sex unions from other states.

Pankowsky said that regardless of how local Hadassah members felt about gay marriage, many had “questioned the reason for [Hadassah’s resolution] in the first place.”

“Frankly it seems out of the usual interest of the organization,” said Rita Posner, a longtime Hadassah member who’s married to Lubavitch Rabbi Zalman Posner. “All I see the amendment doing is strengthening what was always a given.”

Hadassah began as a Zionist organization, and Posner lauded the work the group has done via its hospital and its other charitable endeavors.

“I think it’s very important for an organization to evaluate what they get involved in,” she cautioned. “I think [groups] need to be more in touch with their membership.”

Lisa Perlen, a retired local attorney, wouldn’t disclose whether she is going to support the amendment. For Perlen, a bigger concern is Hadassah formulating a political position at all. “I take issue with Hadassah taking a stand on political issues that are seemingly without the vote of the whole organization,” she said.

Both Perlen and Posner feel that Hadassah — which is very active on certain domestic issues relating to women’s health and reproductive freedom — should stick to the organization’s historic mission of supporting Israel.

Beyond highlighting potential differences between Hadassah at the local and national levels, last week’s panel did sharpen the parameters of the issue’s debate for some.

Karen Daniel, an administrative assistant at Vanderbilt University, said she now opposes a constitutional ban, though “before I didn’t know if I was even going to bother to vote.” Daniel added, “If an amendment can come up to change my rights, what else could be an amendment that could affect me as a Jew?”

In the South it’s not easy to deal with the controversy over gay marriage: Houses of worship are as common as Starbucks locations in New York or in Seattle, and religion plays a greater role in politics.

Klein, the representative from Hadassah’s national office who participated in the forum, said that amendments such as the one on the ballot this fall could be viewed as a political tactic used by the Republican Party, which in Tennessee wants to extend its slim majority in the State Senate and is trying to take the State House. But she added that while the immediate goal of placing such a measure on the ballot might be to get a few more voters out to the polls, it’s another step for those who are “looking to make a Christian America.”

“We have a paradigm for dealing with this; it’s called the First Amendment. It’s called the separation of church and state,” Klein said.

Posner disagreed that religion and law are necessarily separate. She said that within our existing laws “there are any number of concepts” that are religiously based, such as the dignity of all human beings, which “aren’t recognized as such.”

Even if last week’s panel didn’t sway opinions, Pankowsky said she feels better about Hadassah’s national policy.

“Some of [Nashville’s Hadassah members] may look at it from a religious point of view, which was why I really appreciated having the forum, because I understand now that this really isn’t a religious [matter],” she said. “We need to make sure as Jews we have that protection, that separation [between church and state] helps to protect our rights.”

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