"Rabbi, can we have you June 16?"
"Rabbi, I'll be away until June 17, are you free that day?" "Hey, Lisa, can we plan a group ceremony down at the courthouse on June 16?"
Even though people do seem to like the way I officiate weddings, I've never been the busiest rabbi in town when it comes to meeting couples under the chuppah. So what's going on? What's this rush to marry? And why June 16?
Under California law, a Supreme Court ruling must wait 30 days before going into effect, making June 16, 2008, the first business day when same-sex couples may apply for a California marriage license. For on May 15, in a landmark 4-3 ruling, our state Supreme Court took notice that the fundamental right to marriage has been denied to a certain group of adults.
What makes a right fundamental, say the legal experts, is that it's a right all people share. To remedy that situation, the court has issued a ruling giving all adult couples and their families the same protections through marriage now enjoyed only by opposite-sex couples and their families.
Beth Chayim Chadashim (House of New Life), where I serve as rabbi, was founded 36 years ago by gay and lesbian Jews to be a safe haven in a time when they needed a safe haven in (and from) the Jewish community. Today, times have changed, and we are proud to be simply an open, welcoming, affirming, Jewish congregation.
Still, though, many of our members are partnered in same-gender couples, and many of their families have yet to receive full legal protections. Now we are poised to receive those full legal protections beginning June 16 by filing marriage licenses with the state of California.
Although those of us who have had wedding or commitment ceremonies without the benefit of civil contract know that we don't need state approval to enter into and live within a sacred relationship, the decision of the California Supreme Court last week has already begun to make important differences to everyone -- whether gay or straight, partnered or not, and whether their parents or their children are legally married in the eyes of the law or not yet. The differences will be palpable, for the ruling brings to all citizens of California certain rights that only certain families currently receive.
Of course, the California Supreme Court decision did not come overnight. It came through the efforts of countless people working for many years to open hearts and minds and to bring a case that would allow the court to examine thoroughly the constitutionality of extending the right to marry only to two-gendered couples.
Among those working on this cause have been many Jews. Why? We can only speculate, but certainly it's not a new phenomenon to see Jews in the forefront of struggles for civil rights in this country. Jewish history, Jewish values and personal experience (in housing restrictions or school quotas, for example) have all combined to teach Jews that none are free until all are free; that the withholding of rights and protections from some citizens diminishes the claims of our country to be a place where all people carry "certain unalienable rights," including "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
No doubt the Jewish understanding of civil liberties is why the Reform and Reconstructionist movements of Judaism went on record years ago supporting the civil right to marry, thus helping pave the way for many conflicted Jewish families to accept and love their gay and lesbian children, parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, co-workers, neighbors.
Yet even as the wedding planning begins, we find our newly won protections already threatened. A California ballot initiative is, even as I write, making its way toward the November ballot, an initiative that, if successful, would change the state Constitution by limiting marriage to opposite-gender couples and render the Supreme Court's ruling moot. Thus, even in the midst of celebration, we know we have a challenge ahead of us to show the fair-minded voters of California that discrimination ought not be written into the California Constitution, a document intended to guarantee and protect, rather than deny, basic civil rights to its citizens.
Jews well know that allaying people's fears and worries, even when those concerns are not grounded in truths, is no easy task. And that is why we will be asking for your help over the next few months to defeat the ballot initiative and in so doing preserve the California Constitution, leaving intact its newly enabled ability to protect all marriages and families.
This past Sunday, our congregation gathered for the first event in a yearlong celebration of our 36th (double chai) anniversary. I invited people gay or straight, in a couple or not yet, who, since last week's Supreme Court decision, are planning to, or hoping to, or even just considering marrying legally in the state of California to gather around a chuppah. In a room of about 150 people, about 20 couples -- several with children -- came forward. We stood together, many with tears in our eyes, and offered this prayer:
"You are blessed, Holy One our God, Source of Life, who enables us to strive toward the devotion of Jonathan and David, the life-sharing of Ruth and Naomi and the commitment of Jacob and Rachel. May the time come soon when the voices of all lovers, the music of all friendships, will rise up to be heard and celebrated throughout the world. Blessed are You, Source of Love." -- Adapted from the "8th Blessing" by Debra Budner
When that blessed day does arrive, it won't be from sitting back and waiting. It will because fair-minded people everywhere -- including within the Jewish community -- choose to pursue justice. The Supreme Court has done its part, now it's our turn to uphold its work and our constitution. Will you help us keep justice, fairness and equal rights the rule of law in California?
Lisa Edwards is rabbi at Beth Chayim Chadashim "House of New Life" in Los Angeles.
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