How Jews Brought America to the Tipping Point on Marriage Equality: Lessons for the Next Social Justice Issues

Reference: Tikkun Magazine

March 10, 2014

By Amy Dean

In a few short years, same-sex marriage went from being an untouchable political hot potato to a broadly accepted civil right in eighteen states and the District of Columbia. Jews, and their social justice organizations, helped make that happen. In fact, this magazine was a prophetic voice of marriage equality, supporting same-sex unions in the early 1990s and helping to lay the groundwork for the current wave of victories.

The story of Jews’ contributions has continuing political relevance. The campaign for marriage equality offers valuable lessons for how to break through public resistance on other issues that Jewish groups are now addressing, including economic justice initiatives like paid sick leave, rights for domestic workers, and raising the minimum wage.

A forward-thinking strategy, combined with local and regional organizing, could be key to helping Jewish activists win victories on other issues that may seem unwinnable today, either because of intransigence in Congress or because they don’t yet have popular support. For example, Congress is nowhere near passing the $15 minimum wage that has become the clarion call of several campaigns for workers’ rights. It may seem equally farfetched to imagine that all workers could earn and receive paid sick time, or paid family leave, or that domestic workers such as nannies and housekeepers could enjoy the same rights to livable wages and safe workplaces that workers in other industries receive.

Yet these are several policy issues for which activists—among them Jewish social justice groups—have already begun to stitch together a region-by-region patchwork of victories. For instance, Jewish social justice groups like Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ) and Bend the Arc were early supporters of the domestic workers’ rights movement. Moreover, San Francisco, Albuquerque, San Jose, SeaTac, and Santa Fe have all passed citywide minimum wage increases; and legislatures in Washington, DC, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Maryland, South Dakota, Alaska, and several other states are considering raising their state minimum wages. To chart a way forward on these issues, it is worth examining how Jewish activists gathered enough force to help push the state-by-state dominoes over to legalizing same-sex marriage.

Same-sex marriage has won, but its triumph was not preordained. Now that eighteen states have passed laws giving the full legal rights and tax benefits of marriage to same-sex couples, it is difficult to imagine a time when this achievement seemed impossible. But such a time did exist, and not long ago. In 2009, for example, the broader political climate—especially broad swaths of the Christian community—was hostile to same-sex marriage. That year, large religious organizations such as the Roman Catholic Church, the Southern Baptist Convention and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormon Church) arrayed themselves against it; leaders from these and other Christian groups signed a document that year called the Manhattan Declaration, that which claimed the Bible prohibits same-sex unions. (Over half a million people have since signed the Manhattan Declaration, although many others say it misinterprets Biblical teachings.)

Around that time, even mainstream liberals, such as President Obama, resisted fully embracing gay and lesbian marriages, preferring to offer lesbian and gay couples the separate-but-equal legal category of civil unions. “A lot of people, five years ago, would have said ‘Well, I support civil unions. We don’t need to call it marriage, because that’s a certain thing, but it would be the same legal rights,” says Hadar Susskind, director of the national Jewish grassroots political organization Bend the Arc Action and Bend the Arc PAC. “And I say we, because that was me at some point. We had to believe that that was sort of the progressive position.”

The victories in the states around marriage equality owed much to local and national Jewish social justice groups who looked beyond the political consensus of the time. Even five years ago, many of these groups stood behind same-sex couples who wished to marry. National Jewish social justice organizations such as the National Council of Jewish Women, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and Bend the Arc (on whose board I currently serve as co-chair) helped to galvanize the American Jewish community to support pro-marriage equality bills in the states. In fact, Jews can claim a fair share of the credit for bringing Americans to a tipping point of accepting marriage equality.

If Jewish social justice organizations can bring the lessons from their victories on marriage equality to their work on the minimum wage and other economic justice issues, there may be more victories ahead.

First Lesson—Take a Clear Moral Stance

By coming out early with a clear moral position rooted in religious values and coordinating their message at the national and state levels, Jewish leaders helped reassure voters who may have been unsure about the religious implications of voting for marriage equality.

As early as 2007, Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, wrote in an op-ed in the Washington Post: “We have reached a point in American society where the obvious is clear: neither my marriage nor anyone else’s is threatened by two loving individuals of the same sex. And it is increasingly difficult for religious leaders to envision that the loving God of the Universe does not welcome such faithful relationships.”

The shift in attitudes is a deep one, according to a recent poll cited in a report in The Atlantic this past summer: “Even among the most conservative Christian group in America, 51 percent of white evangelicals aged 18 to 34 now support gay marriage”. And polls say Jews themselves now support marriage equality to the tune of over 80 percent. Susskind suggests it is no accident that Jews embraced same-sex marriage. “As the narrative on marriage equality in the country has moved,” he says, “Jews—as people who value equality, value civil rights, and have a long historical understanding of what it means to be discriminated against—are consistently at the front of that.”

This tactic of taking a moral, religion-based position on the treatment of one’s fellow humans is already proving useful in winning on economic justice issues.

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Amy Dean is a fellow of The Century Foundation and principal of ABD Ventures, LLC, a strategic consulting firm. She is co-author, with David Reynolds, of A New New Deal: How Regional Activism Will Reshape the American Labor Movement. She is also the current co-chair of the board at Bend the Arc (formerly the Jewish Funds for Justice and the Progressive Jewish Alliance). Follow her on Twitter (@amybdean) or at amybdean.com.