Jewish Journal


November 11, 1999

‘Marriage’ In California

'Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.'


Although Californians do not go to the polls for another four months, Proposition 22 has already taken an early lead in the race to become the hot button issue of Election 2000. At the center of the debate is the deceptively simple wording of the proposition, sponsored by Republican State Senator William "Pete" Knight. Does the initiative simply reiterate an objective fact defending the institution of marriage in the United States, or does it constitute an unnecessary, divisive attack on homosexuals? Jewish organizations are already staking out their positions in the debate, and more often than not these positions are diametrically opposed.

A wide coalition of cultural conservatives, with financial backing from the Catholic Church, placed Proposition 22 on the ballot to "protect California" from "same-sex marriages." California Family Code 300 currently specifies that marriages licensed in California are "between a man and a woman." A Field poll released on October 27 shows likely California voters favor the controversial Initiative by a 50-41 margin with 9 percent undecided. This incipient battle is already resonating in the year's most important race--for president.

Democrats Vice-President Al Gore and Senator Bill Bradley both oppose the "Knight Initiative." (United States Senators Feinstein and Boxer, Congressman Henry Waxman, State Senator Tom Hayden, Assembly members Wally Knox and Sheila Kuehl, the Los Angeles City Council, the California Teachers Association, and the ACLU have come out against the measure.) Six Republican Presidential candidates, the Family Research Council, and the Capitol Resource Institute support Prop 22.

The increasing public debate about the legal definition of civil marriages highlights long-standing theological and social differences within the Jewish community. The Pacific Association of Reform Rabbis, the largest rabbinical organization representing Western States, has denounced Proposition 22 as "an anti-gay measure" attacking civil rights. "The Knight Initiative is hateful, hurtful, and divisive," said Rabbi Denise Eger of West Hollywood's Congregation Kol Ami and No on Knight board member. "Our tradition teaches us that all people were created in the image of God -- gay and lesbian people, too."

Some Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis preside at "commitment ceremonies" for homosexual couples, and both religious movements endorse gay and lesbian civil marriages. The Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the Reform movement's institutional arm, came out in favor of gay and lesbian couples receiving the same benefits as married couples in 1993. In 1996, Reform rabbis announced their support of homosexual civil marriages.

Orthodox religious leaders have been equally fervent in their denunciations of efforts to establish a legal parity between heterosexual and homosexual relationships. Agudath Israel of America, a national Orthodox Jewish organization with members all across the United States, submitted an amicus curiae brief against same-sex marriages in May 1997.

"Agudath Israel submits that it is, or ought to be, an urgent objective of public policy not only to strengthen the institution of marriage, but to do so in a manner that promotes a sense of responsibility to children. The historical genius of marriage is not merely that it constitutes the legal union of man and woman, but that it furnishes the foundation of family. Legalizing same-sex marriages -- which, by biological definition, can never have anything to do with procreation -- would obscure further still the vital link between marriage and children. It would convey the message that childbearing, and childrearing, are matters entirely distinct from marriage. The message is subtle, but in Agudath Israel's view, devastating."

The legal brief, written by Robert Bruce, Jr. and David Zwiebel, also argued "conferring society's blessings upon same-sex unions by according them the legal and social status of 'marriage' would convey an unmistakable imprimatur of acceptability and legitimacy upon the practice of homosexuality... Agudath Israel is of the view that government has no business conveying that message."

The Orthodox Union's Institute for Public Affairs, representing over 1,000 Orthodox synagogues nationwide, considers homosexual acts "immoral behavior." The OU strongly supported federal legislation known as the Defense of Marriage Act, signed by President Bill Clinton on September 21, 1996, that allows States to avoid recognizing same-sex marriages performed in other states. Proposition 22 stems partly from that law.

No state currently allows same-sex marriages, but court challenges have been heard in Hawaii and Vermont. Proposition 22 sponsors, including the Capital Resource Institute, fear that California could be forced to recognize same-sex marriages because California Family Code 308 explicitly recognizes all out of state marriages. Governor Davis also signed a Domestic Partnership law on Oct. 4 that provides a statewide registry for same-sex couples and heterosexual couples at least 62 years old and guarantees hospital visitation rights. In addition, public employees for the first time will have access to health insurance for their same-sex partners.

One item both sides of the Prop 22 debate agree on: the initiative will no doubt have a long afterlife in the courts, no matter how the election results tally.

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