When a bill that legalizes same-sex marriage gets presented before legislators early next year, many of Washington State’s most prominent Jewish organizations will be actively supporting it. The support, many say, is based on civil rights, human rights, and that it’s the right thing to do.
One of the important points that religious and communal leaders both inside and out of the Jewish community are making about the push for civil same-sex marriage in Washington State is that it will respect religious traditions.
“The First Amendment guarantees it,” said Josh Friedes, director of marriage equality for Seattle-based Equal Rights Washington. “The only conversation that is occurring today is about civil marriage. It is for each faith tradition in accordance with its religious polity [to decide] who it will and will not marry.”
Several Jewish organizations and synagogues have thrown their weight behind a coalition called Washington United for Marriage, which launched on Nov. 14 to educate the state’s citizens about a measure that will be introduced in the legislative session beginning in January.
Seven organizations that make up the coalition include Equal Rights Washington, the Human Rights Campaign, and the ACLU of Washington. The Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle and the Anti-Defamation League have signed on as supporting organizations. Many rabbis from across the state have expressed support as well.
“We think civil marriage is an institution separate from religion,” said Hilary Bernstein, regional director of the ADL’s Pacific Northwest chapter. “Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is just as abhorrent as any other form of discrimination.”
But at the same time, Bernstein said, “we also fully support the right of specific religious groups to decide that this is not a ceremony they’re going to perform.”
Not supporting marriage creates a two-tiered system that denies same-sex couples the rights of others, Bernstein said. Washington expanded its domestic partnership law in 2009, but Friedes noted that there are important distinctions between that and marriage.
“The domestic partnerships make no attempt to confer the over 1,000 legal rights and responsibilities of marriage that one gets with a marriage license,” he said. Those include Social Security, immigration rights, and portability.
“Very much outside of Washington State, but even inside of Washington State, people often don’t know what a domestic partnership is, and we have seen problems arise during times of crisis that would not exist if gay and lesbian couples had the right to marry, because marriage is of course universally understood,” Friedes said. In addition, “the domestic partnership occurs at the division of corporations, which is really quite humiliating when you stop and think about it.”
If nothing else, the Jewish community has the numbers behind it. In a Pew Research poll from 2010, 76 percent of Jews across the country support marriage equality. In addition, Zach Carstensen, director of government affairs at the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, noted that though Jews make up less than 1 percent of the total population in the state, 5 percent of the registered partnerships are of Jewish couples.
“As a Jewish organization that represents and is sensitive to a broad spectrum of Jewish opinion, that weighed heavily on us” when deciding to support same-sex marriage, Carstensen said.
In addition, from a financial perspective, as a philanthropic organization, “we have an interest in ensuring that assets and property pass down in an orderly way, whether that’s through a same-sex couple or an opposite-sex couple,” he said.
But “when the Federation volunteers were looking at the issue, it really boiled down to a First Amendment religious liberty determination,” Carstensen said.
It’s that lack of recognition that the Federation and ADL boards, as well as the boards of Jewish Family Service and Hillel at the University of Washington, among others, agreed was a civil-liberties issue.
Both Ken Weinberg, CEO of JFS, and Julia Bacharach, Hillel’s board president, cited a resolution passed by the Federation’s board stating that the Federation “supports allowing same sex couples equal access to civil marriage and reaffirms guarantees of religious freedom which protect the right of clergy members and congregations to perform marriages consistent with their own religious practices and traditions” as a primary reason for getting behind the coalition.
“It was very much about religious pluralism and civil marriage equality,” Bacharach said. “This Hillel prides itself on social justice and being at the forefront of social justice issues, and believes in this statement with our values of social justice and equality.”
Given the contentious nature of the marriage issue, Bacharach said her board wrestled with the decision about offending people — and risking losing some large donors — by standing in favor of it, but they also had to weigh that argument against offending people if they remained silent.
JFS’s Weinberg said that despite a possible financial risk, his organization did not want to remain silent because silence has been devastating for Jews in the past.
“I could just imagine a group of Germans before the war, saying, ‘If we were to take a position of support for the Jewish community, we might really have a terribly negative reaction on the part of some people. We’re better off being quiet,’” he said. “We’re not about to do unto gays what was done unto us. We see no reason, no reason whatsoever, to exclude gays.”
With JFS being located on Capitol Hill, which holds the largest concentration of the LGBT community in the state, the agency serves many of that community’s individuals and families.
“The gay and lesbian community has found us to be open and inclusive, and we want to make sure that they continue to see us as open and inclusive, and that we’re here for them,” Weinberg said.
Dee Simon of the Washington State Holocaust Education Resource Center said her organization will support legislation because it promotes human rights.
“It’s important to understand that homosexuals and the LGBT community were persecuted during the Holocaust, and today there are young students in schools throughout our state who are persecuted because of their sexual orientation,” Simon said. “We feel it’s a human rights issue and it’s important for us to be there.”
Despite the broad support from Jewish communal organizations, some parts of the community will not support a new marriage law. When the Federation board voted on its marriage-equality resolution, the Va’ad HaRabbanim of Greater Seattle, the area’s kashering authority and Orthodox religious court, cast a vote against. The rabbis who make up the board are not likely to change their minds, according to one of the rabbis who asked that he not be quoted on the record.