Gay Marriage: Is it a Fights for Equal Rights or the End of a Moral Society?

…At the heart of the debate is an intertwining of the social, religious and legal fibers that combine to form marriage and questions regarding to what extent those fibers can or should be untangled. Opponents of same-sex marriage say that trying to separate the spiritual and legal definitions of marriage is a disingenuous exercise, since marriage is defined by a society that bases itself on moral, and very often religious-based, values and uses those values to decide who will reap the benefits of society.

…”We are dangerously overlapping church and state in the whole legal marriage discussion,” said Rabbi Lisa Edwards, leader of Beth Chayim Chadashim (BCC) on Pico Boulevard, which was the world’s first gay and lesbian synagogue. “I do think that God needs to be part of the conversation within the Jewish community and other religious communities, but I don’t think God ought to be part of the larger legal, public discussion.” Bringing religion in obscures the basic civil rights issue that is at the heart of this, advocates say.

“This movement for gay marriages is plain and simple about helping families protect themselves, using the mechanisms our society has created to protect families and to protect partners in loving relationships, and to have them live up to the rights and responsibilities that go along with that,” said Rabbi Denise Eger, rabbi of Kol Ami, West Hollywood’s Reform Synagogue, and a member of the steering committee of the California Freedom to Marry Coalition. But many fear the consequences of taking God out of foundational societal mores.

“A godless society is not a healthy society,” Korobkin said. “It may be functional, but if there is no larger cause that unifies the people and calls them to a higher moral standard, then that society is doomed to a short-lived and amoral tenure.” One idea being floated is taking the state out of the marriage business altogether. The state would offer civil unions to everyone – gay and straight couples – and leave the sanctification to religious bodies. “It makes sense to me to get city hall out of the marriage business and put that squarely in the hands of the religious leaders,” said Rabbi Steve Greenberg, an Orthodox rabbi who came out of the closet a few years ago. “The advantage of this approach is that nobody uses civil marriage as a bully pulpit to force one religious view of marriage or another on the larger body politic.”

But gay couples acknowledge – and opponents are quick to agree – that it is both an emotion and legal challenge to make that separation. The bestowal of the hundreds of legal rights and protections that go along with the word “marriage” signifies a societal acceptance that is an equally, if not more, important goal of the movement to legalize same-gender marriage. “My parents have this piece of paper, and we wanted to have the same piece of paper and have the same experience,” says Bracha Yael, holding up the framed marriage license she and her partner of 24 years, Davi Cheng, signed in San Francisco in February. “For me it confirms that our relationship is equal; that my parents’ relationship is not somehow greater than ours.”

It is only in the last seven or eight years that Cheng and Yael have lived openly and proudly as lesbians. In 1998, they had a Jewish wedding at BCC, with many friends and almost no family members. “There has been this tremendous arc in our relationship, from being fully closeted, where no one had to tell us we were less than, because we already thought we were less than, through these trials and tribulations to the other side, where we’re equal within society, but mainly within ourselves,” said Yael, a contractor. When they announced they had gotten married, even Cheng’s “Rush Limbaugh Republican” colleague cried and hugged her.

It is just that kind of validation and acceptance of facts on the ground that opponents don’t want to see, that they say can lead to the slippery slope of a society with no moral foothold. “I don’t want children to start thinking at the age of 7, when somebody says, ‘Who are you going to marry?’ ‘Well, maybe it will be Johnny or maybe it will be Jennifer,'” said Dennis Prager, the conservative KRLA radio talk show host who debated same-sex marriage at the University of Judaism on May 12 with Greenberg and others. He argues that the question of same-sex marriage has nothing to do with civil rights, since, just like anyone else, gays are permitted to marry members of the opposite sex.

Prager said that society does and should define the terms of who can marry – such as prohibitions on brothers and sisters marrying each other or polygamy. “Utah was banned from admission to the union until it prohibited polygamy. Why was that not anti-Mormon or violating the rights of Mormons?” Prager asks. Prager said his issue is not with gays who want to be in relationships, it is with those who want to make those relationships equal to heterosexual marriage. “Everybody has a line they draw, and the burden of argument is on those who wish to redefine an institution that has had only one meaning in the history of civilization,” Prager said.

…The questions of same-sex commitment ceremonies and ordaining gay and lesbian rabbis are currently before the movement’s influential Committee on Jewish Law and Standards. By next March, the committee will consider teshuvot (halachic treatises) prepared by its members and most likely will ultimately validate several positions. Conservative rabbis will be free to choose which to follow. Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector and professor of philosophy at the University of Judaism, is vice chair of the law committee and had been slated to become its chairman last year. But because his views are clearly on the left on this issue – he advocates full equality – the committee deferred his chairmanship until the question has been decided.

Dorff believes it is clear that gays do not choose to be gay and cannot become straight and that society has an interest in seeing loving, stable, monogamous relationships. With those factors motivating his study, Dorff believes it is imperative to narrow down the interpretation of the verses in Leviticus prohibiting male-male sex.

“I am not in any way shape or form trying to ignore the verses or change them by takanah [rabbinic decree]. All I am doing is saying that we should understand those verses differently from our ancestors, who understood them to prohibit all homosexual sex. We should understand them to prohibit only promiscuous, oppressive or cultic sex, but loving monogamous homosexual sex would be outside of those verses and would be something we want to sanctify,” Dorff said. Whether or not Dorff’s opinion will prevail, it is clear that within both American society and the Jewish community, the terms of the conversation have changed. Gays who once would have been thrilled with civil unions are now pushing for full marriage.

And some who might never have considered civil unions are now open to it. Korobkin, the Orthodox rabbi from Hancock Park who is firmly against gay marriage, not only believes the Orthodox community should be more tolerant and sensitive to gays, but he is open to the idea of giving loving partners legal status other than marriage to afford them rights and protections. “If two people have committed themselves to each other as partners, they should have a right to designate another person of whatever gender as the primary caregiver or life partner, and I think that person should have special privileges,” he said. “I think it would be a callous society that would deny a homosexual the comfort and consolation of his life partner.”

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