Los Angeles — The most powerful Orthodox Jewish umbrella group has thrown its support behind a ballot initiative that aims to overturn California’s historic decision to legalize same-sex marriage.
In late August, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America joined a coalition of faith-based groups supporting Proposition 8, which, if passed come November, would nullify the California State Supreme Court’s May 15 ruling that gay men and lesbians can wed. Since mid-June, when the ruling took effect, hundreds of gay couples here — many of them Jewish — have tied the knot.
The question of gay marriage has long been a subject of fierce debate in the Jewish community. On the one hand, liberal Jewish groups — as well as individuals, including leading civil rights lawyer Gloria Allred, who helped win the California case — have fought assiduously to win the right of gay couples to marry. At the same time, more conservative corners of the Jewish community have fought against same-sex marriage laws that have cropped up in recent years.
The O.U., a New York-based group that represents some 1,000 Orthodox synagogues across the country, and other supporters of Proposition 8 — which would amend the California constitution to define marriage as being between a man and a woman — contend that the rulings in favor of same-sex marriage pose a growing threat to their religious liberties.
“We know the threat to people of faith and houses of worship is real and under way,” the O.U. said in a public statement. “Religious institutions and people face charges of bigotry and could be denied government funding and more if same-sex marriage becomes the law of the land.”
Howard Beigelman, deputy director of public policy for the O.U., cited cases in Massachusetts and New Jersey in which religious organizations that do not support same-sex marriage have come under legal attack from those who do support it. In 2004, Massachusetts became the first state in America to grant full marriage rights to gay people, and in New Jersey — where civil unions are legal — the battle to gain full marriage equality is still under way. Beigelman pointed to a Massachusetts case wherein Catholic Charities, which operated a thriving adoption agency, chose to “get out of the adoption business,” he said, rather than be forced by law to allow gay couples to adopt.
Beigelman expressed concern that in California, under the new gay marriage law, churches and synagogues could be sued if, for example, they refused to rent out their space for a gay couple’s wedding reception.
Constitutional law expert David B. Cruz, a professor at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law, said that such arguments are not based on fact.
“This is incredibly hyperbolic and a straw man they’re attempting to set up,” Cruz said of the O.U.’s concerns. “When it comes to core religious ceremonies, there is just no basis in reality for a worry that if you don’t pass Proposition 8, churches or other religious institutions will have to perform ceremonies that violate their faith.”
Cruz also said that the Catholic Charities case bore no resemblance to gay marriage cases, as the former was about a legal parent-child relationship and the other cases are about performing a religious ritual. The state, he said, would never mandate a religious ritual.
This is not the first time that the O.U. has come out against gay marriage. In 2006, the director of the O.U.’s Institute for Public Affairs, Nathan Diament, made a public statement in support of the Federal Marriage Amendment, which Congress failed to pass in July of that year. He also bolstered the proposed amendment in a meeting with President Bush. The FMA, also known as the Marriage Protection Amendment, would amend the U.S. Constitution to define marriage as solely between a man and a woman.
At the state level, the O.U. recently criticized New York Governor David Paterson when he passed an executive order mandating that New York recognize all out-of-state same-sex marriages. That order came on the heels of the California ruling.
And the O.U.’s statement in support of Proposition 8 also mentions a similar effort in Arizona, known as Proposition 102. Beigelman said that the O.U., in conjunction with other faith-based groups, plans to take out ads in California Jewish newspapers to publicize its support of the ballot initiative.
Jewish groups that have come out against Proposition 8 so far outnumber the two Orthodox groups that support it, the O.U. and Agudath Israel of California, an ultra-Orthodox group. In recent weeks, the American Jewish Committee joined such groups as the Anti-Defamation League, the National Council of Jewish Women and the Progressive Jewish Alliance in their opposition to the ballot initiative.
Proposition 8’s Jewish opponents, who have coalesced under the banner of the “No on 8, Equality for All” campaign, blasted the O.U. for its stance.
“I’m disappointed in the O.U. and their lack of understanding of the law and reality,” said Steve Krantz, founder of Jews for Marriage Equality. “It’s a smokescreen for bigotry.”
Krantz, the 61-year-old father of a gay man, has been instrumental in galvanizing Jewish communal opposition to the ballot initiative. Jews for Marriage Equality, a Southern California based group that Krantz founded several years ago to promote the legalization of gay marriage, has convinced 148 California rabbis to sign on to a clergy statement in support of same-sex marriage.
Krantz said that he hopes to garner 250 rabbinic signatures in the coming month. The group, he said, also has plans to run ads opposing Proposition 8 in Los Angeles’s Jewish Journal and San Francisco’s Jewish weekly, j.