Jewish groups ride roller coaster in week of court rulings

The Supreme Court’s two rulings on marriage equality this week sent many Jewish groups into a state of elation.

“Having faced prejudice and bigotry throughout our history, the Jewish community does not tolerate unjust discrimination against others,” Alan van Capelle, the director of Bend the Arc, which advocates on social issues, said in a statement. “Personally, as a gay Jewish man who has long been fighting for LGBT rights, it means so much to see our highest court rule that my family has as much right to happiness and protection under the law as any other.”

The court, which issued its decisions early on June 26, overturned a key part of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, and cleared the way for same-sex marriage in California by declining to rule on the constitutionality of Proposition 8.

Gay rights supporter Vin Testa waves a rainbow flag outside the Supreme Court building on June 26. photo/jta-getty images-win mcnamee

“We are elated that the Supreme Court ruled in favor of fairness and equality,” Idit Klein, the executive director of Keshet, a group that lobbies for LGBT inclusion and equality, said in a statement. “Our ancient Jewish values teach us that we all are created b’tzelem Elohim [in God’s image] and our current laws violated this sacred principle by refusing to recognize and protect LGBTQ relationships.

“The overwhelming majority of American Jews support equal marriage and this is a proud day for us all.”

The DOMA case concerned two Jewish women who had married in Canada and resided in New York. A lawsuit was brought by Holocaust survivor Edith Windsor, who was forced to pay federal taxes on the estate of her late wife, Thea Spyer.

DOMA “singles out a class of persons [and] imposes a disability on the class by refusing to acknowledge a status the State finds to be dignified and proper,” Kennedy wrote in a majority opinion joined by the four liberal judges, including Jewish justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan and Stephen Breyer, as well as Sonia Sotomayor.

The marriage equality cases had Jewish groups filing friend-of-the-court briefs on both sides. Liberal groups defended the rights of same-sex couples, while Orthodox groups sought to push back against the California Supreme Court decision.

The Anti-Defamation League, which filed amicus briefs in both cases on behalf of a broad group of religious organizations, said in a statement that it welcomed the rulings and “will continue to work towards the day when all states in the nation will allow civil marriage for same-sex couples.”

The Orthodox Union, meanwhile, declared that “the historical position of the Jewish faith, enunciated unequivocally in our Bible, Talmud and Codes … forbids homosexual relationships and condemns the institutionalization of such relationships as marriages. Our beliefs in this regard are unalterable.”

However, the OU statement added, “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.”

In a more somber note, Ruth Messinger, president of American Jewish World Service, which calls itself “the Jewish voice for LGBTI rights worldwide,” noted that the rulings represent “one of the necessary steps to ensure that the human rights of people of all sexual orientations are respected everywhere in the world.

“Too many people in too many countries are ostracized, threatened and assaulted just for living their lives and loving others of the same gender,” Messinger added. “In 76 countries, people can be arrested for having sex with someone of the same gender and in five countries the punishment is the death penalty.”

The decisions on marriage equality came during a roller-coaster week that also included two other important Supreme Court rulings: a reprieve for affirmative action in higher education; and a gutting of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Jewish groups praised the June 24 decision on affirmative action, with the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center celebrating it for upholding “the use of affirmative action, the principle of diversity, and the understanding that race conscious remedies may be necessary to ensure diversity.”

The June 25 decision to roll back a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, mandating federal approval of any election-law changes in states where racial discrimination had been pervasive, split the court 5-4 along its conservative-liberal lines. All three Jewish justices dissented from the majority opinion.

Jewish groups condemned the decision and vowed to bring the case to Congress.

J. staff contributed to this report.

Ron Kampeas

JTA D.C. bureau chief