Big Groups To Address Gay Rights Questions

By Ori Nir, With Reporting by Nacha Cattan

Published February 13, 2004, issue of February 13, 2004.
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WASHINGTON — The divisive national debate over gay rights is about to spill over into the Jewish organizational world, as leaders of a dozen of the nation’s largest Jewish groups prepare to gather in Boston and try to hammer out a joint Jewish communal position on the issue.

The topic will take center stage later this month at the annual conference of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, a consultative body that brings together 13 national Jewish agencies and 122 local community-relations councils for coordinated action.

In addition to a session dedicated to same-sex marriage and gay rights, the attendees are expected to debate a proposed call to amend an existing JCPA resolution endorsing a hate-crimes law, which covers attacks against gays and lesbians.

“We are at the beginning of this discussion,” said Ethan Felson, the council’s assistant executive director. “Many of our member agencies are having internal conversations to figure out where they are on this. At the plenum, we’ll start placing some of these issues on the table.”

Also expected is a heated debate on civil liberties and the USA Patriot Act.

Council members include the three main synagogue unions, the three most prominent Jewish civil-rights groups and mass-membership organizations such as Hadassah and B’nai B’rith.

The gay rights debate pits liberal and civil-rights groups favoring equal rights for gays, including the Reform movement and the Anti-Defamation League, against traditionalist groups, led by the Orthodox Union, that fear legitimizing a biblically banned lifestyle.

While both sides say they hope to find common ground, several observers said a consensus was unlikely, even on the narrow topic of hate-crimes legislation. At heart, the observers said, the clash is a fundamental one between two visions of America.

“You have a growing cohort of people whose morality is purely secularly derived, conflicting in a very stark fashion with people whose morality and world view is determined religiously,” said Marc Stern, assistant executive director of the American Jewish Congress. “And there doesn’t seem to be a lot of room in between.”

The debate has become polarized, Stern said, because it has evolved into a clash between two core American values: equality and liberty. Advocates of gay rights frame their position as a straightforward call for equal rights. Conservatives counter that their own religious liberty is threatened by the progress of gay-rights advocates.

“More and more, gay rights come into conflict with religious rights,” said Abba Cohen, Washington director of the ultra-Orthodox Agudath Israel of America. When that happens, he added, increasingly “gay rights win” and religious rights lose.

Conservatives are hard-pressed to cite many cases in which religious institutions have been directly affected by gay-rights victories. But Orthodox leaders say they worry about a slippery slope ending with legislation and court rulings that could compel them to grant a host of rights to gays and their partners.

Both the Aguda, which does not belong to the public affairs council, and the Orthodox Union, which does, filed amicus briefs before the Supreme Court last week opposing a decision by the state of Connecticut to remove the Boy Scouts from a list of approved charities for state employees, because the scouts ban gays from leadership positions. Three years ago, the court ruled the scouts’ policy constitutional, but the state deemed it discriminatory.

“The question in this case is whether organizations and communities that adhere to moral or religious convictions may be treated as legal pariahs and bigots to be demonized or ostracized from the rest of civilized society,” said David Zwiebel, the Aguda’s executive vice president for government and public affairs.

Robert Leikind, ADL’s New England regional director, responded that the Aguda argument, taken to the extreme, means that “every religious group should be able to impose its value system on the larger society, and that general democratic notions of equality and free expression should be subject to the rigid values and practices and ideas of a given religion.”

The disparate views will be aired in Boston in a JCPA panel discussion on gay marriage, pitting ADL and Reform movement representatives against the Orthodox Union.

While it opposes gay marriage, the O.U. may compromise in a separate debate on hate crimes. The O.U. formally dissented from a 1998 JCPA resolution on hate crimes that mentioned “violent hostility against gays and lesbians.” The O.U. is now willing to reconsider, said its Washington representative Nathan Diament, if the resolution’s reference to gays and lesbians is toned down.

Most JCPA member agencies support amending the resolution to achieve a greater consensus, sources said. But some staunch gay-rights advocates oppose such a change, the sources said.

Contentious discussions about the USA Patriot Act are also expected. A draft resolution criticizes parts of the Patriot Act as well as administrative actions applying enemy combatant status to American citizens suspected of terrorism who are captured in the United States. But the Reform movement and three local community councils want the final version to go further. The Boston, Portland and San Francisco councils want to remove a section that would “oppose the outright repeal of all or most” of the Patriot Act. The Union for Reform Judaism wants the JCPA to push for a ban on most ethnic profiling. The JCPA leadership declined to include the changes, saying that some of its officials argued that the changes ignore current law enforcement realities, and instead plans to put them up for a vote.

Another controversial resolution backs a Senate bill intended to increase oversight of government-funded Middle East studies centers at universities. The Boston CRC opposes the resolution on First Amendment grounds.

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