Massachusetts Jews Stand Solidly Against Anti-Gay-Vows Initiative

By Nathaniel Popper

Published February 20, 2004, issue of February 20, 2004.
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The successful fight last week to defeat a state constitutional amendment in Massachusetts banning gay marriage received a vigorous boost from Jewish legislators and communal groups.

All 14 Jewish legislators at Massachusetts’s constitutional convention last week voted against the proposed Travis Amendment, which would have outlawed same-sex marriages. The Jewish lawmakers rejected the measure even though it left open the option of civil unions, like those allowed in Vermont, for gay couples.

Many of the legislators said their support for full civil marriage rights was strongly informed by a sense of Jewish history and ethics.

“Any time you single out a minority and subject them to unequal treatment,” said state Rep. Stanley Rosenberg, a Democrat representing western Massachusetts, “you are validating the historical discrimination against Jews throughout history.”

At the constitutional convention last week, three separate compromise amendments were defeated, mostly by a combination of strong supporters of gay marriage, including the Jewish representatives, and a bloc that was opposed to both civil unions and same-sex marriage. The convention was prompted by last November’s ruling by the Massachusetts Supreme Court requiring the state to offer marriage to same-sex couples starting this May.

The unified front maintained by Jewish legislators came just two weeks after the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater

Boston — an umbrella organization of 41 local organizations — overwhelmingly passed a resolution urging “elected officials to enact legislation providing for same-sex marriage.” The measure was approved 51 to 5, with the dissenting votes coming mostly from members of the Orthodox community.

Even in famously liberal Massachusetts, the near unanimity of the Jewish community in support of full marital rights stood in stark contrast to both public opinion in the state and the voting patterns of state legislators from other religious backgrounds. The Boston Globe found that 51% of Massachusetts’s Catholic representatives and 56% of Protestant lawmakers supported the constitutional ban on gay marriage. In a statewide poll by Zogby International, 52% of those surveyed said they opposed legalizing gay marriage — just 1% fewer than said so in a nationwide Gallup poll last week.

“Jews seem to be playing in this movement for equality a role similar to the one Jews played in the black civil rights movement of the 1960s,” said Arlene Isaacson, co-chair of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus.

It is unclear if the communal cohesion on this issue in Massachusetts reflects Jewish opinion in the rest of America. But Marc Stern, the legal director of the American Jewish Congress, said previous polls do not give any reason to assume there will be a great difference. “The commitment to equality is very deep-seated, and very self-serving among Jews,” Stern said.

To be sure, there are still serious divides in the Jewish community over this issue. Even with all the agreement in Boston, Alan Ronkin, the deputy director of the Boston JCRC, said that the debate was highly charged because marriage is “the only institution where church and state have danced together so closely.”

“You can’t go into your rabbi and get a fishing license, but for the purposes of marriage, the rabbi is made an agent of the state,” Ronkin said. “Marriage gets easily bound up entirely with religion for people who are not thinking legally.”

Yet Ronkin, a veteran of interfaith dialogue, says that during meetings of the Boston JCRC — the first local community relations council to come to a decision on this issue — members demonstrated a rare ability to separate the religious connotations of marriage from the civil institution of marriage.

The need for such a distinction was clear to all of the Jewish Massachusetts legislators, including state Rep. Ruth Balser, a Democrat representing the Boston suburb of Newton.

“None of us are saying that a rabbi has to perform a marriage for a gay couple,” Balser said. “What we’re talking about here is civil marriage, and in matters of the state our Jewish tradition directs us to provide equal protection.”

Jewish groups, many observers noted, have a long history of favoring a strict separation of church and state.

Other religious groups in this debate have been less willing to tolerate discrepancies between state and religious law. In a national poll of Catholics completed by Zogby International last week, 28.7% of those surveyed supported allowing priests to conduct gay marriages in Catholic churches. When the respondents were asked about civil marriage instead, the level of approval rose only to 38.7%. The findings are far from trivial in the case of Massachusetts, where three-quarters of the legislators are Catholic.

The Jewish-Catholic divide on the issue might also be attributable to an important theological distinction, said Mark Silk, the director of the Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College. “In Catholicism, marriage is a sacrament,” Silk said, “and to nest with it in this way is unsettling, even for Catholics who are fully behind rights equality for gays. Judaism, on the other hand, does not have sacraments in that sense.”

But Rabbi Naftoly Bier, a member of the Orthodox coalition opposing gay marriage in Massachusetts, said that any effort to justify gay weddings with Jewish scriptural tradition represents “a desecration of the Torah.” Bier, along with two other Orthodox rabbis, signed onto a letter from the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston declaring that “marriage must be defined in our civil law as the union of one man and one woman.”

Bier said that he felt a responsibility to sign on to the letter because “to make it look like the Jews support homosexuality, and all the other religions don’t, would be a terrible thing.”

But even Bier expressed a note of ambivalence on the issue.

“The American people will decide,” Bier said. “If the American government does it, that’s their prerogative.”

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