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April 30, 2009 - Image 86

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 2009-04-30

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Compromise on civil unions sparks intrigue.

Eric Fingerhut

Jewish Telegrapic Agency



s it the first step in forging a pos-
sible compromise on one of the most
divisive social issues of the day or
merely an intriguing idea that won't break
the impasse?
Judging from the reaction of Jewish
groups to a proposal that would recognize
same-sex civil unions while carving out
an exemption for religious organizations,
it's not yet clear. Some said the proposal
might ease the tension between support-
ers and opponents of gay rights; others
believed the time wasn't yet right for such
a deal — or showed no interest in making
The tension between gay rights and reli-
gious liberty is "the mega-cultural issue
of the decade," said Nathan Diament, the
Orthodox Union"s New York-based public
policy director, and cuts across a number
of areas.
For example, some religious conserva-
tives, including Orthodox Jewish groups,
want an exemption included in any leg-
islation that would outlaw employment
discrimination against gays — so that, for
instance, a Catholic church would not be
forced to hire a gay priest. Meanwhile, sup-
porters of gay rights have opposed a bill
that would protect the religious rights of
individuals in the workplace, arguing that
the legislation might, for example, allow
a worker to refuse services to gays and
But the most contentious issue is gay
marriage, which is the subject of the com-
promise proposed by Jonathan Rauch, a
guest scholar at the Brookings Institution,
and David Blankenhorn, president of the
Institute of American Values.
In a New York Times op-ed last month
they wrote that "Congress would bestow
the status of federal civil unions on
same-sex marriages and civil unions
granted at the state level, thereby confer-
ring upon them most or all of the federal
benefits and rights of marriage. But there
would be a condition: Washington would
recognize only those unions licensed in
states with robust religious-conscience
exceptions, which provide that religious
organizations need not recognize same-
sex unions against their will. The federal


April 30 g 2009

government would also enact religious-
conscience protections of its own. All of
these changes would be enacted in the
same bill."
Such religious-conscience exemptions
could include everything from allowing
religious groups to deny health coverage
to the partner of a gay employee to, more
controversially, permit a clerk at a state
office to decline to prepare a license for a
gay civil union for religious reasons.

Easing Tenseness?

Rauch, who is Jewish and gay, said he and
Blankenhorn intended the proposal as a
way to "de-escalate" the tensions on both
sides of the issue by giving both sides
some of what they want while the larger
issue continues to be debated.
Rabbi David Saperstein, director of
the Religious Action Center of Reform
Judaism, said his Washington-based
organization didn't have a position on the
specific proposal but saw it as a positive
development. "This can be a very helpful
step to ease the tensions:' said Saperstein,
noting that "it's very doubtful that either
side can have what they want alone."
He added, though, that while the Reform
movement might accept civil unions as an
intermediate step, it would still continue to
push for full marriage equality for same-
sex couples.
Richard Foltin, legislative director and
counsel for the New York-based American
Jewish Committee, also said his organiza-
tion had no position on the compromise,
but he was glad to hear people discussing
and suggesting creative solutions.
Others weren't as welcoming. The fer-
vently Orthodox group Agudath Israel of
America opposes any government recog-
nition of same-sex relationships, including
civil unions.
"We are opposed in principle to any
legislation that in any way advances the
notion that same-sex relationships are no
different from the traditional relationship
between a man and a woman that is most
sublimely expressed in marriage:' said
Agudah's New York-based director of pub-
lic affairs, Rabbi Avi Shafran.
He said the group fears not just being
forced to recognize such relationships by
the government, but also that recognizing
such relationships would lead society to
"accept homosexual relations as proper"
and see traditionally religious groups as
harboring "unwarranted prejudice."

Two women are married under a chuppah in San Francisco in 2008.

Diament was more open to the Rauch-
Blankenhorn proposal. He did not endorse
it, but did leave the door slightly ajar, not-
ing that while the OU is opposed to legal
recognition of same-sex marriage, it does
not have a position on civil unions.

No Middle Ground?
Still, Diament believes the ground is not
yet right for such a compromise, point-
ing to some distrust that has developed
between the two sides. For instance, after
legislation was offered last year that would
prevent condominium associations from
making rules banning the posting of reli-
gious symbols — such as mezuzot — on
residents' doors, some gay rights support-
ers derailed the legislation, arguing that
the bill could allow residents to post signs
with derogatory messages about gays and
Diament says that instead of pushing
for a grand compromise, activists should
first try to "forge some concrete solutions"
on smaller issues that can act as "confi-
dence-building measures and serve as a
model" before delving into the larger issue
of gay marriage.
On the other side of the issue, there's
the National Council of Jewish Women,
which generally has come down on the
side of gay rights activists in their battles
with religious liberty advocates — unlike
most other Jewish organizations, which
either try to straddle the line between the

two camps or are solidly on the religious
liberty side.
The director of the NCJW's Washington
operations, Sammie Moshenberg, said
her organization wasn't interested in
some sort of a deal at this point because
it doesn't support anything more than
narrowly tailored religious exceptions
— such as, for instance, a provision that
would not require clergy to perform same-
sex ceremonies.
"We are for marriage equality for same-
sex couples," she said, and believe that
"civil rights laws should apply — with the
exception of rare exemptions — across
the board."
Some observers believe momentum is
on Moshenberg's side.
Marc Stern, the acting co-executive
director at the American Jewish Congress
in New York, wrote an article in a personal
capacity for the Orthodox Jewish journal
Tradition five years ago outlining a similar
tradeoff to the Rauch-Blankenhorn pro-
posal, and the various potential religious
conflicts that could arise — from health
benefits for a same-sex spouse to whether
a synagogue would have to rent out its
social hall to a same-sex couple.
Stern still thinks negotiating such a
compromise is a good idea. And, he adds,
with the idea of gay marriage becoming
more and more accepted, religious groups
"would be wise not to fight" a deal that
allowed for civil unions. ❑

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