Washington State recently passed its Marriage Equality Bill legalizing same-sex marriage. In the media coverage of state Senate debates, we heard from congresspersons who couldn’t reconcile their religious convictions against homosexuality, with legalizing same-sex marriage. How is it possible that religious concerns dictate the legal structure of a secular institution?

The ORacle, February 2012 Issue

I spoke two weeks ago about how our Jewish texts support loving unions including homosexual ones. But that argument was within a Jewish context. I want to question today how it is acceptable that religious arguments are included in the public policy debate over same-sex marriage? Using religious texts to preclude a group of people from a civil institution is unconstitutional and a blatant violation of the separation of church and state.[1]

As I started my research on why religious arguments should be kept out of politics, what should I find? That as a matter of theology and community relations, Jews have championed the relevance of religious discussion in political discourse. 

In one of our siddurim, prayer books, the Sabbath Prayer for Our Country prays that God will teach our nation’s leaders “insights of Your Torah, that they may administer all affairs of state fairly, that peace and security, happiness and prosperity, justice and freedom may forever abide in our midst.”  Many of us feel it is desirable for religious groups to advocate policies that fulfill those groups’ ideals of a just society.

John Kennedy quotes Isaiah, swearing in his second presidential oath that, “the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God.’  He implored both sides ‘to undo the heavy burdens . . . (and) let the oppressed go free’ before closing by ‘asking God’s blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.’   Martin Luther King, Jr. used the Exodus story as a metaphor for the civil rights movement. 


And so I modify my earlier view. It is unrealistic to expect people to approach public issues independent of their religious values, especially for those for whom religion plays a crucial part in shaping their identity.[2]  But how can our discourse and reasoning be done in a way that embraces our country’s religious diversity?

Those who believe that God designates specific acts as either right or wrong may be propelled by a certainty which entertains no possibility of error.  Such a position of infallibility makes reasoned political discourse impossible.  As Joel K. Goldstein, constitutional law scholar argues, how can we dialogue with someone who believes they hold a trump card from God?[3] 

Instead, what if we use the conception of God presented in Genesis—the Eternal as a common parent who creates humans in the divine image, b’tzelem Elohim.  This idea suggests the equality, dignity and interrelatedness of all human beings and leaves no space for a fundamentalist view of one dominant truth.  Even if one believes that God’s word is final, the fundamentalist errs in assuming they have received and understood that word more perfectly than others.   As Goldstein clarifies, invoking God cannot operate as an ace in the hole.  Religious discourse can contribute to political discussion IF it is presented as human interpretations and applications of religious teachings. 

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As we consider the issue of religious arguments for and against marriage equality, one of the most salient issues arising from prohibiting same-sex marriage and denying its validity, is the creation of a group of second class citizens. By keeping same-sex couples out of marriage, the government suggests that one sexual orientation is right and another is wrong.

We must work to legitimize religious diversity with respect to civil rights issues.   The array of religious beliefs is an American strength, but when a set of religious beliefs results in the restriction of the civil rights of gay people, we are commanded to stand up and fight for equality. And the concern of merging religion and politics is not only in regard to Christian fundamentalists. The right-wing Orthodox movement in Israel is attacking the rights and freedoms of women and girls in Israeli society.  These include attempting to force gender segregation on buses in the Haredi community, the removal of photos of women from advertisements, and violence directed at young girls with the opening of a Modern Orthodox girls’ school, destroying the car of a secular Jewish woman, social pressure forcing women to board buses from the back and to sit in the back of the buses, barring women from appearing in public events, and placing women at professional conferences behind partitions or in another room. Ultra-Orthodox oppression of women goes against Israeli freedom and democracy regardless of gender. Just as progressive Jews have demanded that the Israeli government uphold the values upon which the State of Israel was founded and preserve the rights of all its citizens, we Americans must also not allow narrow interpretations of scripture to deny full equality to our citizens. How can we as humans presume to speak for God; God, that which we call the Mystery?

Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, II, President of the North Carolina NAACP captured it well when he said, “A vote on the same sex marriage amendment has nothing to do with your personal opinion on same sex marriage but everything to do with whether or not you believe discrimination should be codified and legalized constitutionally.”[4]


This week’s parsha, Terumah, instructs the Israelites to create a mishkan, a tabernacle, so that the Eternal may dwell amongst the people. Today, we construct our mishkan out of the equality, dignity and interrelatedness of all human beings. May our Jewish ideals of b’tzelem Elohim, the entirety of human creation being in the image of the Eternal, continue to inspire our fight for tzedek, justice. And as we celebrate America’s religious diversity may we enable others to unite with this sacred ideal.

Ken y’hi ratzon, so may it be God’s will.

[1] Brittney Baker, “Same-Sex Marriage and Religion: An Inappropriate Relationship,” e-Research: A Journal of Undergraduate Work, Vol 1, No 3, 2010.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, II, Open Letter to All North Carolinians (by the President of the NC NAACP), September 9, 2011.