I just returned from three days in Washington, D.C. to celebrate the beginning of Passover and an important crossroads on the road to freedom for the LGBT community. The first two days of Passover were momentous because this year’s story outlined in the Haggadah was more personal than ever before. The Haggadah reminds us to imagine that we went forth out of Egypt ourselves. As I stood on the steps of the Supreme Court on Tuesday and Wednesday mornings, the first two mornings of Passover, surrounded many dressed in red worn for LGBT equality, I knew I was marching out of Egypt.
This year the Supreme Court of the United States heard two important cases about the freedom to marry for gay men and lesbians in our country. On the first morning of Passover, California’s Prop 8 case was heard. This case concerns whether or not Proposition 8 that was passed in November 2008 is legal. In other words, can a majority of voters take away rights from a minority! Marriage equality was legal in California from June 2008 until the proposition passed in November 2008. More than 18,000 couples married during that time. I had the privilege of performing the first marriage in Los Angeles County.
On Wednesday the Court heard Windsor v the United States. Edie Windsor sued the US for not recognizing her marriage to Thea Speyer. Upon Thea’s death Edie had to pay $363,000 of federal estate tax because the Defense of Marriage Act or DOMA would not recognize her as the legal spouse. Edie knew this was an injustice and wanted to do something about it. She and her partner of over 40 years were married in Canada but the federal government did not recognize their marriage when Thea died.
Our Reform movement has long been an advocate for equal rights for the LGBT community. The first resolution of support came in 1964 by the then National Federation of Sisterhoods now Women of Reform Judaism, who called for the decriminalization of consensual sexual relations between adults! In 1984 our then UAHC in a biennial resolution called for federal recognition of domestic partnerships for gay and lesbian couples and equal federal benefits to marriage! And our own CCAR endorsed civil marriage for gay men and lesbians early on in the marriage equality movement in 1996!
But on Tuesday morning as I prepared to speak at the rally on the day the California Prop 8 case was being heard I could feel the wheels of history literally turning. You could feel it in the young people who turned out to support marriage equality. You could feel it in the older lesbian couples who flew in from Ohio just to be there. You could feel in the gay dads schlepping their two young children to meet other families just like theirs! Even when the opposition marched toward the several thousand gathered to support marriage equality-the opposition didn’t stay long. The National Organization for Marriage and the Catholic Church bused in lots of Catholic high school students to march against marriage equality, many of whom were told they had to go or lose class credit! But the opposition marched toward us and was peaceably turned around by pro-marriage equality activists and the Capitol police. They marched back to their gathering place chanting, “One man, One Woman-only That’s what the Bible says!” I guess they haven’t read the story of Jacob, Leah, Rachel, Bilhah and Zilpah!
As I took the podium to speak, I looked out on a sea of American flags and rainbow flags and people adorned in red it gave new meaning to the Red Sea! The crowd was so diverse, every race and ethnic group seemed present. The signs people held aloft –included children of gay and lesbian parents who had homemade signs that proclaimed “Let my moms get married.” One of my favorites was “Bigotry is not very Christian.” Other couples had signs proclaiming how long they have been together 7 years-to 40 years to two older gentleman clearly in their 80’s who had been together nearly 60 years. It was very inspiring to be with Americans of every stripe who simply wanted their rights and responsibilities to care for their spouses. I met a couple one in a wheelchair who had been the first to marry in the West Point Chapel. Of course one was Jewish!
The scene outside as I spoke was different than the highly structured form and format of a Supreme Court hearing. Even as some of the conservative justices wondered aloud if our country was ready for marriage equality, calling “it an experiment that hasn’t been around as long as the internet” it was clear from the number of years many of the couples has been together that gay “marriage” has been around forever. What hasn’t been around is the legal recognition and the protections embedded in the legal definition of marriage.
As I spoke about the Passover story and the themes of the holiday from degradation to dignity, from oppression to freedom the crowd understood that it was their story too. Nine justices were deciding at the very moment and all were wondering if their hearts would be hardened to the arguments or whether finally LGBT couples who wish to marry will be able to do so. In June we will find out how the Court will rule. So I am counting the days along with counting the omer.
Tuesday evening I had the privilege of co-leading a Prop 8 Passover Seder at the Equality Center at the Human Rights Campaign building. Formerly the B’nai Brith headquarters it was a poetic spatial affirmation between the Jewish commitment to tikkun olam that used to take place in those very rooms and the continuing work for equality and justice that is done now in the same space! The Passover Seder was organized by a former Religious Action Center Legislative Assistant, Joanna Blotner who now works for the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Rights. Joanna grew up in our movement. She worked at HRC for several years after her time at the RAC. She is a straight ally. But she and a group of friends organized an amazing Seder with an inspiring Haggadah dedicated to equality for LGBT people and intertwined with the story of our Exodus from slavery! More than 115 primarily young people in their 20’s and 30’s celebrated Passover together and talked about the meaning of equality, the meaning of liberty and the meaning of tikkun olam in the context of the Passover story. I don’t know whether I was more moved by leading the Seder or being with these inspiring young leaders like Joanna!
There is no stopping now. Whatever way the court rules (and pundits are having a field day trying to figure out from the questions how they will decide) the arc of justice is bending rapidly. Just see the cover of the recent Time magazine. Watch the push for marriage equality in places like Minnesota, Rhode Island and Illinois.
And yet there are plenty of places where the LGBT community faced continued bigotry in the form of legislation. You can still be fired in 33 states in the United States for simply being gay. And in Arizona there is a terribly hateful “bathroom bill” aimed at transgender people. And of course young people are still being bullied for perceived sexual orientation on school yards everywhere.
I have hope. This Passover gave me hope that we are on our way to the Promised Land. I have hope that the court will restore marriage equality in California. I have hope that DOMA will be declared unconstitutional. I have hope that the march to full equality is in full swing. And I hope you all will actively work toward these freedoms in your community and work to actively help your young people learn how they can make a difference too.
Rabbi Denise L. Eger is the founding rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami, West Hollywood’s Reform Synagogue. She is currently President Elect of the CCAR.