This week, the US Supreme Court vitiated the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and then ruled that the Defense of Marriage Act, which bars federal recognition of same-gender marriage, unconstitutional. This, in my opinion, meant a step backward and then a step forward for civil rights.
American Jews have a direct interest in both of these issues, even though most Jews don’t identify as gay and most Jews in the United States don’t identify as people of color. That’s because most Americans don’t identify as Jews. Protection of the rights of the minority has always been a matter of survival for us as well as a positive reason for why we choose to live in and contribute so much to this country.
The Voting Rights Act has particular resonance for us, since it was, along with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, drafted in the conference room of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. This legislation represented the work of thousands of Jews who joined the Freedom Rides and civil rights marches to fight for equality of persons in the United States, including Rabbis Saul Berman and Abraham Joshua Heschel, prominent Orthodox and Conservative leaders respectively. It represents the cause for which secular Jews Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner gave their lives.
Those who approve of the change agree with the Chief Justice that those cities, counties and states which had been under federal scrutiny for discriminatory voting practices have advanced to the point where such scrutiny is outdated. If so, why did officials in Texas, Alabama and other Southern states rush to enact regulations that make voting more difficult as soon as this decision came down? As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in her fierce dissent, “"Just as buildings in California have a greater need to be earthquake proofed, places where there is greater racial polarization in voting have a greater need for prophylactic measures to prevent purposeful race discrimination."
It was, of course, entirely specious for Chief Justice Roberts to suggest that Congress, as it is now constituted, will simply go back to the drawing board and conceive a new formula for determining which districts and states should be monitored for discriminatory practices. The current Congress will do no such thing, because the lower house is dominated by those who, for ideological reason, are determined to render the President’s second term as unproductive as possible--and it also includes those whose sympathies may not incline them to defend the Act in any case.
On the other hand, federal barriers to same-gender marriage have been overcome. The executive administration is already moving to change all discriminatory regulations over which it has direct power. While Jews in the US are divided on this question, many major Jewish organizations have worked hard for the civil rights of LGBT Americans. The Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Renewal movements all support marriage equality and have ruled that rabbis adhering to their movements may bless gay unions in Jewish rituals.
What I find striking is the gracious and nuanced statement of disapproval issued by the Orthodox Union, which reads in part, “We also recognize that no religion has the right to dictate its beliefs to the entire body politic and we do not expect that secular law will always align with our viewpoint. Ultimately, decisions on social policy remain with the democratic process, and today the process has spoken and we accord the process and its result the utmost respect.” This is quite a different tone from that taken by extreme culturally conservative Christian leaders who are predicting, with what appears unsettlingly to approach glee, that God will rain punishment on our country.
That the issues of voting rights and marriage rights have emerged in tandem this week might remind us of the tangled circumstances through which Jews in the United States have been able to live as freely as we do. On one hand, we are fortunate enough to live in a constitutional republic in which respect for all religions and favoritism toward none is a founding principle, albeit one which constantly needs defending. On the other hand, ever since slavery was institutionalized along racial lines, that majority of Jews who have been considered white (albeit, at times, in a shaky sort of way) have never had to contend, as our ancestors in Europe did, with being at the very bottom of a “racial” hierarchy. So our record of activism on both these issues remains a mix of solidarity and self-interest, a coupling of principle and pragmatics.
As my friend Rabbi Ruth Adar writes, “Today’s progress, wonderful as it is, is not enough. We can’t declare the work done yet.” Our safety and our hunger for a just world, in which the image of God within every person is recognized and respected, demand that we continue to bend that arc.