As soon as President Barack Obama wrapped up the television interview in which he endorsed same-sex marriage, he called an evangelical minister who advises him to offer a heads up — and Jack Lew, the White House chief of staff, made a similar call to the Orthodox Union.
The calls, made on May 9 before the interview hit the Internet, demonstrated the White House’s determination to preempt any backlash the endorsement might engender from religious groups. Obama administration officials have been careful to emphasize that the president also backs protections for religious groups that oppose same-sex marriage.
“He called to inform us about what the president was going to announce and [add] in context,” Nathan Diament, the O.U.’s executive director of public policy, said of the call from Lew, himself an Orthodox Jew.
The move appeared to have yielded some dividends.
The O.U. said in a statement that it was “disappointed” by the president’s new stance and reiterated Orthodox Jewish opposition to “any effort to change the definition of marriage to include same-sex unions.” But the group also said that it “appreciated” Obama’s praise of New York State’s same-sex marriage law, which offers protections for religious institutions that oppose same-sex marriage.
The Jewish community’s reactions to Obama’s remarks were auspicious for the White House: There was great enthusiasm from most quarters, along with restrained criticism from Orthodox Jewish opponents. Polls have found that upwards of three-quarters of American Jews support same-sex marriage. Outside the Orthodox world, Jewish groups generally back it as well.
“It is a significant and historic step forward in the pursuit of equal opportunity, individual liberty and freedom from discrimination,” the Anti-Defamation League said in a statement, “and underscores the fact that no American should be denied access to the benefits of civil marriage because of his or her sexual orientation.”
In the interview, which aired in full on May 10, Obama — who previously had said he backed civil unions but did not support same-sex marriage — described what he has called his evolution on the issue.
“I have to tell you that over the course of several years as I have talked to friends and family and neighbors, when I think about members of my own staff who are in incredibly committed monogamous relationships, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together,” he said, “when I think about those soldiers or airmen or Marines or sailors who are out there fighting on my behalf and yet feel constrained, even now that ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ is gone, because they are not able to commit themselves in a marriage, at a certain point I’ve just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.”
The Reform movement’s Religious Action Center described the president’s remarks as “a key moment in the advance of civil rights in America.”
Among other groups praising the president’s endorsement were the National Council of Jewish Women, Hadassah, the National Jewish Democratic Council and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.
Another Orthodox umbrella group, Agudath Israel of America, refrained from directly criticizing Obama in its statement, noting that the president was expressing his “personal feeling.”
Rabbi Avi Shafran, Agudath Israel’s director of public affairs, said in an email that the president’s endorsement was “unfortunate” to the degree that it advanced the cause of same-sex marriage. But Shafran also noted: “The president was clear about the fact that he was sharing the fruits of his own personal contemplation of the issue, not advancing any new federal initiative. He is leaving the definition of marriage to each state’s electorate.”
That is the balance the White House sought, according to an administration insider. Yet while the White House tried to reassure religious conservatives by stressing the measured nature of the president’s remarks, this did not seem to dampen the enthusiasm of Jewish supporters of same-sex marriage.
“It will be a milestone in American history for gay rights,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, who directs the Religion Action Center. “He was laying down a marker about his personal commitment and not trying to deal with the policy issue. His statement provides momentum.”
“President Obama has admirably continued to demonstrate the values of [the Jewish imperative] tikkun olam in his work to make America a better place for all Americans,” said National Jewish Democratic Council chair Marc Stanley. “I am truly proud of President Obama and know that so many others in the Jewish community share my feelings.”
But the issue of same-sex marriage still has the potential to be divisive in the Jewish community, something Agudath Israel made clear in a statement issued after the NJDC responded to Obama’s announcement.
“To imply that a religious value like tikkun olam — and by association, Judaism — is somehow implicated in a position like the one the president articulated is outrageous, offensive and wrong,” Agudath Israel stated. “We hereby state, clearly and without qualification, that the Torah forbids homosexual acts, and sanctions only the union of a man and a woman in matrimony.”