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Newsdesk January 23, 2004

Groups Back Gay Marriage

A coalition of Jewish organizations has joined the push to legalize gay marriage in Massachusetts.

The Jewish Community Relations Council of Boston, a public-policy umbrella organization representing 40 local groups, overwhelmingly passed a resolution last week in support of a law sanctioning same-sex marriages. The organization’s board voted 51 to 5 in favor of the resolution.

“Denying same-sex couples the right to enter into a civil marriage creates second-class-citizen status, which is unacceptable in a just and democratic society,” the organization said in an official statement.

The JCRC resolution comes about two months after the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled in November that under the state Constitution, same-sex marriages must be recognized. The court gave the legislature and the governor until May to come up with a plan to legalize gay unions.

Opponents are now pushing for an amendment to the state constitution defining marriage as between a man and a woman; if approved by the legislature, the amendment could not appear on a voter ballot until 2006. Meanwhile, legislators have asked the court whether a civil-unions bill granting gay couples the benefits but not the title of marriage would satisfy its ruling.

The JCRC board, which includes representatives from organizations across the religious and political spectrum, firmly resolved to oppose any new efforts in Massachusetts to create legislation that would prohibit gay marriage.

The endorsement comes at the same time that Catholic leaders in Massachusetts have announced a large-scale campaign to block legislation recognizing same-sex unions.

Rabbi Chaim Schwartz, executive director of Agudath Israel of New England and a member of the Coalition for Marriage, strongly condemned the JCRC’s endorsement and claimed that the Boston Orthodox community was largely opposed to the newly adopted resolution. The Aguda is not a member of the JCRC.

“The Torah response is not what they have supported,” Schwartz said, referring to what he described as the biblical ban on same-sex relationships. “It pains me greatly to have to speak about this in public, but once this group comes out in support of gay marriages, I don’t want people to get the impression that Judaism condones this behavior.”

Islamic Group Drops Out

Leaders of a Muslim organization with alleged ties to terrorist groups announced last week that they had resigned from the advisory board of the Alliance for Marriage, an umbrella group opposing the legalization of same-sex unions. The decision to drop out comes after conservative writer Evan Gahr wrote several articles for the Web site complaining that rabbis had agreed to join a coalition that included the controversial Islamic Society of North America, or ISNA.

In a statement to the group’s members, ISNA president Matt Daniels wrote that the group was dropping out of the alliance “to avoid any distraction from our common goal of rebuilding a culture of intact families in the United States.”

The decision comes as the Senate Finance Committee has asked the Internal Revenue Service for the financial records of several Muslim organizations, including ISNA.

Appointment Decried

President Bush’s recess appointment last week of Charles Pickering drew criticism from the National Council of Jewish Women, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and many liberal organizations.

Bush tapped Pickering, a conservative judge from Mississippi, for a spot on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. Senate Democrats had been using a filibuster to block the nomination, but Bush took advantage of a rarely used regulation allowing him to bypass the Senate on nominations when Congress is not in session.

“NCJW is appalled by the president’s recess appointment,” said the president of the women’s council, Marsha Atkind. “Judge Pickering is an opponent of fundamental civil rights, including the right to privacy and reproductive freedom. His troubling record on civil rights for African-Americans, including his extraordinary and unorthodox efforts to gain leniency for a person convicted of cross-burning, is an affront to those residing in the 5th Circuit states and all of us who care about social justice.”

Pickering, 66, was rejected in 2002 by the Democratic-led Senate, mainly because of his views on race relations. He was renominated by Bush last January, following the Republican takeover of the Senate. Pickering’s recess appointment is good only until the next Congress takes office in January 2005.

Senate Democrats’ main objection to Pickering’s appointment centered on his 1994 efforts to obtain a lenient sentence for a Mississippi man convicted of burning a cross on the front lawn of an interracial couple’s house. Pickering said he was troubled by the “disparate sentences” given to this defendant and to another who was charged in the crime. The other defendant received no prison time, after striking a deal with prosecutors.

Pickering’s appointment drew praise from conservative groups. Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, declared: “At a time when our courts at every level are overstepping their bounds by sanctioning same-sex marriage and infanticide and stripping us of our religious freedoms, President Bush has taken the first step to ensure that our federal courts are filled with judges who understand their role is to follow the Constitution, not reinvent it.”

Israeli Outpost Targeted

Israeli police clashed with settlers while dismantling an illegal West Bank outpost.

The move on Tapuach West, which has a synagogue in memory of slain extremist Rabbi Meir Kahane, was ordered January 20 after Israel’s High Court of Justice rejected a petition against the eviction order. The move was in keeping with the U.S.-led “road map” peace plan. Scores of settler youth tried to block access to the outpost, prompting scuffles with police. There were at least 20 arrests, but no immediate reports of casualties.

Reform Backs Detainees

The Reform movement and two national Jewish groups support the right to judicial review of detainees suspected of terrorism. The movement joined the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee and a range of human rights groups in filing a January 14 brief with the Supreme Court supporting the right of the detainees to claim habeas corpus — the violation of their right to trial through extended detention without charges. Some of the detainees have been held at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay for two years since their capture in Afghanistan.

Embassy Forced To Move

The Israeli Embassy in Sweden will have to relocate after the ambassador attacked an art exhibit depicting a Palestinian suicide bomber. Ambassador Zvi Mazel told Israel Radio on Monday that he and his staff have been asked to vacate the building where the embassy has been housed for almost 50 years. The landlord cited fears that other residents could be at risk following Mazel’s attack Friday on “Snow White and the Madness of Truth,” an artwork included in a Stockholm exhibit depicting an Islamic Jihad suicide bomber floating on the blood of her Israeli victims.

Lawmakers Slam Belarus

Six Democratic congressmen have asked Coca-Cola and McDonald’s to drop sponsorship of the Belarus Olympic team because of a sports stadium built over a Jewish cemetery. Expansion of the Neman stadium in Grodno has unearthed Jewish remains and tombstones, wrote Rep. Anthony Weiner, a New York Democrat, in a letter to the two corporate giants.

Simmons Raps Bigotry

Hip-hop legend Russell Simmons is urging blacks to join forces with Jews to fight antisemitism in Europe and the United States.

Simmons, known for the “Phat Farm” clothing line in addition to his success as a record producer, argued that the Jewish community cannot fight antisemitism on its own.

Co-written by Rabbi Marc Schneier, the article was sent to Jewish and non-Jewish newspapers to mark this year’s observances of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The hip-hop mogul and the rabbi have worked together in the past to improve black-Jewish relations.

If King were alive today, the authors wrote, he would protest the new wave of antisemitism and speak up about the “moral laryngitis” of political leaders who fail to speak out against hatred of Jews.

Rabbi Stands Behind Execs

The rabbi of disgraced former Enron finance chief Andrew Fastow and his wife, Lea Weingarten, is standing by the couple even after they pleaded guilty last week.

“Everyone makes mistakes, and they’re paying for those mistakes,” said Rabbi Shaul Osadchey of the Conservative Congregation Or Ami in Houston, who has known the couple more than 18 years and officiated at their wedding. “It doesn’t preclude people from continuing to do good deeds.”

Fastow pleaded guilty to two counts of conspiracy fraud, agreeing to serve a 10-year prison sentence and to help in the case against former Enron executives Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling. Weingarten pleaded guilty to filing false tax forms and accepted a five-month prison sentence.

Since the Enron scandal broke two years ago, Osadchey has gone on record defending Fastow’s character, publicly calling him a “mensch” and commending the couple for their support of Jewish-related causes. Weingarten hails from a prominent Jewish philanthropic family in Houston and is heiress to its grocery and real estate fortune.

In a statement to the Forward, the rabbi drew upon the biblical patriarchs and matriarchs, whose flaws, he noted, are accentuated by the Torah to illustrate the notion that no one is perfect. Referring to the weekly Torah portion, Osadchey also noted that Fastow and Weingarten would be entering their own “Egypt,” but expressed confidence that they would emerge with a stronger commitment to contributing to society.

Aide Denies Pope Remark

The longtime personal secretary of Pope John Paul II is denying that the pontiff endorsed “The Passion of the Christ” after watching Mel Gibson’s film on the last hours of the life of Jesus.

The papal aide, Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, had reportedly been the source of the Gibson camp’s claim that the pope had declared, “it is as it was,” after watching the film during a private screening in his personal quarters at the Vatican. But, according to the Catholic News Service, Dziwisz denied that the pope made such a remark, and said, “The Holy Father told no one his opinion of this film.”

Earlier media reports quoted the co-producer of the film, Steve McEveety, and assistant director Jan Michelini as saying that Dziwisz informed them of the pope’s alleged remark.

Funding Debate Reopened

A controversial decision by North American charitable federations to maintain their current formula for funding their two overseas partners is now back on the table after a major federation had second thoughts.

The United Jewish Communities’ Overseas Needs Assessment and Distribution Committee, known as ONAD, agreed December 8 to maintain the current split in funding between the Jewish Agency for Israel, which runs immigration and absorption in Israel and Zionist education worldwide, and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which operates relief and welfare programs.

Under a compromise agreement, the federation system agreed to transfer to the Jewish Agency $144 million, or 75% of overseas funds raised this year. The remaining $43 million would go to the JDC.

The committee also agreed to raise an additional $20 million to divide evenly between the two groups. Some $6 million of that would come out of an “elective” reserve that federations can give to overseas programs of their choosing.

But now the UJC has decided to remove a resolution approving the ONAD decision from the agenda of its board of trustees meeting next week, following opposition from the UJA-Federation of New York. A letter drafted January 9 by New York federation leaders, but never sent, said more analysis of the issue was needed. The draft letter criticized the popular argument that moving money away from Israel weakens federations’ commitment to the Jewish state. It also criticized the proposal to reduce federations’ elective funding for their preferred overseas projects and the promise to boost overall funding overseas — a goal the New York federation finds unrealistic.

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