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Jewish Journal

Battle for gay marriage rights gains Jewish support

by Julie G Fax

April 10, 2008 | 6:00 pm

Robin Tyler, left, and her partner, Diane Olson, right, spend every Valentine's Day on the courthouse steps  with their attorney, Gloria Allred, and are denied a marriage license. Photo courtesy Robin Tyler

Robin Tyler, left, and her partner, Diane Olson, right, spend every Valentine's Day on the courthouse steps with their attorney, Gloria Allred, and are denied a marriage license. Photo courtesy Robin Tyler

For years, Robin Tyler has been trying to wed her partner, Diane Olson. Every Valentine's Day they show up at the courthouse with a wedding cake and their attorney, Gloria Allred, only to be denied a marriage license. Last month, Tyler sat in the plaintiff's chair in a case before the California Supreme Court, challenging the legality of the state's definition of marriage as between a man and a woman.

But even this well-seasoned activist -- she was one of the first openly gay comics, and she organized marches on Washington in 1979 and 2000 -- is glad to have a new ally: 100 rabbis who support Jews for Marriage Equality, an organization advocating for same-sex civil marriage.

"It would be great if the Jewish community could provide leadership on this issue. It takes a lot of courage," said Tyler, 66, who was born Arlene Chernick, and is Jewish. "This isn't about wedding cake and Tupperware -- this is about equal rights. The Jewish community has taken the side of civil rights for so many other people that this seems like it should be a natural."

Tyler, a producer who now owns a company that runs women's travel groups, chronicles her journey in "Always a Bridesmaid, Never a Groom," first produced in 1978 as a solo album and now a one-woman show that will be filmed for a movie when she performs it again in the fall. Tyler joined the leadership of the Jews for Marriage Equality when she learned that rabbis had banded together to try to keep off the ballot a measure that would amend the California constitution to define marriage as between a man and a woman.

April 21 is the deadline to qualify a measure for the November ballot, and Conservative groups have hired people to collect roughly 1 million signatures in their effort.

Equality California a state-wide lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) civil rights and advocacy organization, is leading the effort to doom the ballot measure, sending speakers to educate people on the issue and dispatching trained volunteers to counteract efforts at sites where signature gatherers are at work. Jews for Marriage Equality, founded to fight a similar ballot measure in 2005, is homing in on the Jewish community, hoping to convince rabbis and community members to join the fight for gay marriage rights.

Jews for Marriage Equality has recently been picking up new support, not only from activists like Tyler, who led a national effort to fight an anti-gay amendment to the U.S. Constitution several years ago and was a founder of the Web site StopDrLaura, but from 100 California rabbis and about a dozen major organizations across California who signed a lengthy and strongly worded statement.

"Society is strengthened by allowing gay and lesbian couples to legally formalize both their bond with one another and their mutual responsibility for their household and children," it reads. "Society should not only permit but also encourage civil marriage for such couples."

The statement asserts that both social justice and human dignity are principles of faith that must be applied here. For the state to not honor the same-sex marriages performed by some clergy, it says, is to improperly favor the convictions of one religious approach -- that of the conservative right -- over others.

Putting a religious face on this is important, activists say, since so much of the opposition to same-sex marriage has come from faith communities.

"There are large numbers of religious folks who think gay and lesbian couples should have the freedom to marry," said Kerry Chaplin, director of California Faith for Equality, an organization that includes 2,200 faith leaders and congregations, among them about 100 synagogues and rabbis. "We've gotten a one-sided perspective of where people of faith stand on this issue."

Jews for Marriage Equality is co-chaired by Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector at American Jewish University, and Rabbi Jerry Brown of Temple Ahavat Shalom, a Reform congregation in Northridge.

While Reform gay-rights activism is well established, what is notable about this effort is that 23 Conservative rabbis signed on to the statement, and that Dorff is one of the most respected legal and ethical thinkers in the Conservative movement.

In fact, it might be Dorff's leadership on this issue over the past 15 years that has moved gay rights to the front of Conservative consciousness. In 2006, Dorff authored a legal opinion for the Conservative movement saying that rabbis should be allowed to perform same-sex commitment ceremonies and that Conservative seminaries should ordain gay and lesbian rabbis.

But Dorff says backing civil marriage is one of the least contentious of the issues for the Conservative movement, which backed civil equal rights for gays in 1992. While in 1992 equal rights did not necessarily imply support for same-sex marriage, Dorff said in the latest round of discussion on this issue even rabbis who opposed Jewish marriage ceremonies for gays supported the idea of civil marriage, because of the legal rights it confers.

Steven Krantz, a retired IBM executive who founded Jews for Marriage Equality and is president of the Los Angeles chapter of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), hopes to dance at his son's wedding some day -- both Jewish and civil.

But he is worried that the California constitutional amendment, which needs a simple majority to pass if it gets on the ballot, might succeed. A similar ballot measure in 2005 failed largely because it sought not only to amend the constitution but also to put an end to domestic partnership, which in California gives same-sex couples many of the same rights as marriage. Californians balked at such a broad measure in 2005, but there is concern that voters might be open to a more focused measure leaving the legal protections of domestic partnership intact while eliminating the possibility that the term "marriage" could endow gay couples equal status as straight couples.

Currently, the California Civil Code defines marriage as between a man and a woman, adopted by voters in Proposition 22 in March 2000. While the state legislature voted to amend that definition, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger twice vetoed the legislation, in 2005 and 2007, stating that he couldn't overturn the will of voters.

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