Three rabbis from three different movements officiated at Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell and Nurit Shein’s 1998 religious — but not legally recognized — marriage ceremony at their Philadelphia home. Ten years later, a justice of the peace presided over their civil ceremony in California during the brief period when gay marriage was legal there.
Now, the couple, like so many other gay rights advocates in Pennsylvania, is expressing multiple reactions: joy that the U.S. Supreme Court had gone further than it ever has in extending equal rights to gays and lesbians; frustration that the decisions won’t have any practical application at home; and determination to make the commonwealth one of the states where gay marriage is legal.
“This was a watershed moment in the history of the United States,” said Shein, who was born in Israel and directs the Mazzoni Center, an LGBT health care and wellness center in Philadelphia. With the majority of Americans and the majority of Pennsylvanians supporting same-sex marriage, she said, “it is only a matter of time” until the Keystone State follows suit.
On June 26, the Supreme Court issued two watershed rulings on gay rights. One overturned a key part of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, which mandated that federal laws abide by a definition of marriage as between a man and woman. It ruled that same-sex couples were entitled to benefits in states where their marriages were legal — though it should have little effect in states where those marriages aren’t recognized.
In the second ruling, the court said that traditional marriage advocates who sought to defend a 2008 state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage — which had come in response to the state’s courts upholding the right — did not have the right to defend the law in court. As a result of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, same-sex marriage will once again become legal in the largest state in the country.
The first case stemmed from a lawsuit brought by a Jewish woman, a Holocaust survivor, Edith Windsor, who was forced to pay federal taxes on the estate of her late wife, Thea Spyer, who also was Jewish, although their Canadian marriage was legally recognized by the State of New York, where they resided.
With the decisions, gay marriage is now legal in 13 states where about 30 percent of the American population lives. Legislative attempts to add Pennsylvania to the list have yet to gain traction. New Jersey has legal civil unions, but a bill passed by the state legislature in 2012 to recognize gay marriage was vetoed by Gov. Chris Christie. A law in Delaware recognizing gay marriage was set to go into effect on July 1.
Nationally, liberal Jewish groups cheered the pair of gay marriage decisions.
The Orthodox Union released a statement saying, “our religion is emphatic in defining marriage as a relationship between a man and a woman. Our beliefs in this regard are unalterable.”
But the wording contained some nuance.
“We also recognize that no religion has the right to dictate its beliefs to the entire body politic and we do not expect that secular law will always align with our viewpoint,” the statement continued.
Locally, Rabbi Avraham Steinberg of Young Israel of the Main Line said the issue is one that pits competing values against one another.
“Orthodox Judaism believes in showing great sensitivity to the plight of individuals,” Steinberg wrote in an email. “But I fear that the Supreme Court’s decisions signify that our culture, at large, is too readily pursuing all that is different and ‘progressive,’ and will one day turn around and regret that it has shed its values and stability.”
Rabbi Yonah Gross, religious leader of Congregation Beth Hamedrosh, an Orthodox shul in Wynnewood, said the redefinition of marriage in American culture has been a troubling development.
“The entire process of legalizing ‘gay marriage’ has taken place at relatively lightning-fast speed and respect should be given to Judeo-Christian tradition,” he wrote in an email. “There needs to be protection for those that maintain the definition that they truly believe in, for religious reasons or otherwise, even if it isn't in keeping with the latest thrust of popular journalism and political commentary.”
He also stressed that “there needs to be legal protection for those that have a religious or even a conscientious objection to re-define marriage. Will a gay couple be able to sue a synagogue, or a rabbi, for refusing to recognize the marriage?”
Advocates said they were optimistic that the decisions could spark new momentum for a gay marriage law in Pennsylvania. But they cautioned that it wouldn’t be easy because the GOP leadership — both the governor and legislature — in Harrisburg is firmly opposed to the idea, and the state has long been considered conservative when it comes to social issues.
State Rep. Mark Cohen, a Jewish Democrat who represents Northeast Philadelphia, said he soon planned to introduce a bill that would legalize gay marriage. State Sen. Daylin Leach, who is running for the congressional seat being vacated by U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz, has already introduced marriage equity legislation in the Senate.
“Obviously, there is a far better chance of it happening when Democrats are in charge,” Cohen, first elected in 1974, said, but added: “Certainly, it is a historical day.”
Malcolm Lazin, executive director of the Equality Forum, a gay rights organization, says he sees a long road ahead.
“Pennsylvania is like Alabama and Mississippi when it comes to gay rights,” he said, noting that the state’s hate crimes protection does not extend to sexual orientation and there is no specific statewide safeguards against employment discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Lazin, who is planning to participate later this year in a national mission to Israel for gay leaders sponsored by the American Jewish Committee, said it was a point of pride that all three Jewish justices — Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elana Kagen and Stephen Breyer — sided with the majority in the marriage cases.
For Rabbi Peter Rigler, who created a Facebook page called Marriage Equality in PA, the issue has always been about fairness and fundamental human rights.
“This was a pretty wonderful day, not perfect, but a significant victory for sure for the protection of civil rights,” said the religious leader of Temple Sholom in Broomall, a Reform synagogue. “My hope is that there shouldn’t be any more doubt about the legal legitimacy of these partnerships.”
One such partnership is celebrating, for now. When Lee Rosenfield heard the news, he recited the Shecheyanu prayer.
“Thank God — that’s what Jews do when they appreciate these milestones,” he said. “It’s historic, it’s wonderful,” said Rosenfield, who lives with Jack Fastag in Lambertville, N.J. with their 6-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter.
They had a Jewish civil wedding ceremony in 2004 and a civil union ceremony in 2008, after New Jersey changed its policy. Rosenfield likes to joke that Fastag is his husband in New York — though they didn’t actually get marriage there — his partner in New Jersey and his significant other in Pennsylvania.
The family was flying back from visiting Fastag’s mother in Mexico City when the U.S. Supreme Court handed down the decisions. Despite his joy, Rosenfield said it was “scary” that decisions like this are made on 5-4 votes. “One person changes their mind and it goes the other way.”
For her part, Elwell, rabbi for the East District for the Union for Reform Judaism, said that while there is clearly still much work to be done, now was a time to savor the enormous transformation that has taken place in societal attitudes since President Bill Clinton signed DOMA into law in 1996.
“We live in America. Here we are on the eve of July 4. Here we are celebrating the land of the free,” she said, stressing that freedom for some had just come a little closer to being fully realized. l
Material from JTA was used in this report.