SAN FRANCISCO — After Andy Birnbaum came out in 1995, his mother switched to a Reform congregation to find a spiritual home more accepting of her son’s homosexual orientation, while his father remained in their old Conservative congregation, determined to effect change from within.
His father’s only request at the time was that Andy find a nice Jewish boy with whom to settle down and share his life.
Sorry, Mr. Birnbaum.
Early last Monday afternoon, Andy Birnbaum, 34, and Ron Elecciri-Hernandez, 39, emerged from City Hall with their hands clasped high, Birnbaum clutching a newly inked marriage license issued by the City and County of San Francisco. A deputy marriage commissioner had just pronounced them “spouses for life.” A crowd of hundreds cheered, strangers threw rice and blew bubbles, a mariachi band played, a tap-dance troupe, well, tapped with joy.
This scene played itself out every few seconds all day. And Monday was the fifth such day.
From February 12 through 17, San Francisco issued more than 2,600 marriage licenses to same-sex couples — directly challenging California state law and throwing down the gauntlet before the Bush administration.
Despite the international hubbub the weddings caused, there was hardly a ripple through the local Jewish community.
“I’ve mainly heard from people who either themselves participated and wanted to share their good news, or have attended ceremonies, or who were thinking about it, or who were fascinated by it, but I have not heard raging debate within our community about it,” said Rabbi Douglas Kahn, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin, Sonoma, Alameda and Contra Costa Counties.
That’s not to imply nobody thinks it’s important. It was certainly important to Rabbi Camille Shira Angel of San Francisco’s Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, which describes itself as “a vibrant kehilla [Jewish community] for people of all sexual identities.” Angel not only volunteered her time to officiate at several of the civil weddings — she got married herself.
“It’s been some of the most fun I’ve had as a rabbi,” she said Monday, adding that the Jewish community’s disagreements over same-sex marriage might not be as vast as many people assume.
“Orthodoxy isn’t recognizing same-sex unions, but many of my Conservative colleagues support civil rights for same-sex couples and are participating in commitment ceremonies,” she said. “It’s no longer just Reform or just Reconstructionist — we are really seeing ourselves into Jewish history in a way that is radical and also very traditional.”
One Jewish lawmaker in California, Mark Leno, is trying to break similar ground in the realm of secular law. A Democrat from San Francisco and one of only two openly gay men ever elected to the state Assembly, Leno is the sponsor of a new bill called the Marriage License Nondiscrimination Act. Introduced February 12, the measure would amend state law to redefine marriage from “a personal relation arising out of a civil contract between a man and a woman” to one “between two persons.”
“This is a democracy, not a theocracy — fundamentalist religious advocates seem to have forgotten that,” Leno said. “And fundamentalists, from the Jewish perspective, should know better than to support the codification of discrimination in the U.S. Constitution. You go down that path, I think we all remember what happens.”
Hours after introducing his bill, Leno was back in San Francisco performing same-sex weddings at City Hall, including that of Angel and her partner, as their 22-month-old daughter looked on. Leno is a Sha’ar Zahav congregant, and Angel said it felt good to have the tables turned on her.
She recalled Leno giving a sermon on the second day of Rosh Hashana last year “encouraging congregants, regardless of their feelings about marriage as an institution, to see this as a social justice opportunity and get us all on board to fight for the freedom to marry.”
Last weekend, she said, that started to become a reality.
San Francisco made its daring move before Leno even introduced his bill. Mayor Gavin Newsom, sworn in just last month, said he was stirred to action by President Bush’s State of the Union pledge to support an amendment to the U.S. Constitution banning same-sex marriages if judges — such as those of the Massachusetts Supreme Court — keep on allowing them.
On February 12 Newsom directed the city clerk to start accepting marriage license applications from same-sex couples, and the floodgates opened. While most of the couples who flocked to City Hall in subsequent days were from the Bay Area, more than one hundred were from elsewhere in California, a few dozen arrived from across the nation, and a handful came from other countries.
Kahn, of the JCRC, said the local Jewish community hasn’t had a chance yet to forge a consensus on this latest development.
“Once it recedes from the headlines, there may be some very interesting sermons and discussions and the like,” he said. But for now the JCRC is standing by the statement it issued in 2000 in opposition to a ballot measure that would have prohibited same-sex marriages.
While 61% of voters eventually approved that measure, the JCRC had deemed it both redundant and an invitation to discrimination. The JCRC also had expressed support for the goal “of extending the common benefits and protections that flow from marriage to same-sex couples,” but added that in “doing so, we are neither endorsing same-sex marriage, nor are we advocating a change in the definition of marriage, whether it be civil or religious.”
“There’s really been a very accepting attitude in our community about inclusion, about benefits, about removing obstacles and the like,” Kahn said. “On this particular matter, we’ll see over time, I suspect.”
Time may not be on same-sex-marriage advocates’ side — their opponents already have moved to halt San Francisco’s bold step. The conservative Campaign for California Families filed one lawsuit, and a committee to preserve the 2000 ballot measure as law filed another.
But on Tuesday, one judge refused the campaign’s request to stop the weddings, saying it had failed to give city attorneys enough notice of the suit before the court date; the judge scheduled another hearing for Friday.
Another judge said that the ballot-measure committee probably will succeed on the merits of its case, but decided to let the city keep performing the weddings until its attorneys return to court March 29 to show cause on why they’re in the right. The city vowed to do just that; the plaintiffs said they’d ask an appeals court to intervene as soon as possible.