As Supreme Court decision nears, Jews recall long battle for marriage equality

Seven years ago, Ora Prochovnick walked into a Catholic church in San Francisco clutching her wedding album. It had photos of her relatives dancing the hora at her 1996 nuptials, and Prochovnick and her wife smiling joyfully as they stood under the chuppah and got hoisted up on chairs during the wedding reception.

Prochovnick had come to talk to church members about her family and her marriage, which were under attack. It was 2008, and a vote was coming up on Proposition 8, the ballot initiative to amend the California Constitution and prohibit same-sex marriage. Couples recently had gained full marriage equality by a May ruling of the California Supreme Court. Prochovnick wanted to protect those rights.

Jewish contingent at San Francisco Pride in June 2014. On the cover photo/sarah stierch

“It was very hard … I’m a very shy person by nature,” said Prochovnick, 57. “I tried to really humanize how we personally would be impacted. [It was important for] people to have these pictures and see my elderly aunt dancing at my wedding, and see my children, and know that whether or not there was marriage equality was going to affect those children.”

It’s been 11 years since San Francisco became the first county in the nation to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Though those 2004 licenses, issued under the authority of Mayor Gavin Newsom, were later voided, California and the United States have been on a rapid path toward marriage equality ever since. Same-sex partners can now marry in 37 states, including California, and if the U.S. Supreme Court rules as expected in June on a case (Obergefell v. Hodges) that challenges same-sex marriage bans in several states, couples soon may be able to marry in all 50.

The Jewish community as a whole strongly supports marriage equality; a 2010 survey by the Pew Research Center found that 76 percent of American Jews supported same-sex marriage, significantly more than any other religious group surveyed.

In the Bay Area, a region that has always been on the cutting edge of the gay rights movement, Jews have marched and canvassed to make same-sex marriage a reality. Advocates say that if marriage becomes legal for same-sex couples nationwide, it will be an important recognition of human dignity and equality, and it will give practical relief to couples who are already legally married within California.

Rabbi Sydney Mintz

As Prochovnick stood in the Catholic church making her pitch, she had reason to think her audience would listen to her. She came as a member of Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, a historically LGBTQ synagogue in San Francisco, where she had served as its president and ritual chair since joining in the 1980s. In the 2000s, Sha’ar Zahav joined the San Francisco Organizing Project, a grassroots social justice coalition mostly made up of Christian churches, and worked to pass the Healthy San Francisco program. Through its organizing activities, the synagogue formed relationships with Catholic and evangelical churches.

“At this point in our relationship, we had built up some trust,” Prochovnick said.

With Proposition 8 on the horizon, Sha’ar Zahav had turned its political focus to protecting same-sex marriage. Prochovnick said she had a very specific “ask” for parishioners and clergy: Support the No on 8 campaign, or “stand on the sidelines” and not preach about it from the pulpit, something that was happening at many churches.

“We were able to say this is an issue very near and dear to our hearts,” Prochovnick said. She and other Sha’ar Zahav members visited a number of local churches, and several clergy members agreed to stand aside on the issue. “I think this was a prime example of what coalition work can do for you.”

Given that many Proposition 8 proponents raised religious objections to same-sex marriage, Jewish activists stood out as a progressive voice from the faith community.

“I think that’s where you kind of see the Jewish contribution to the larger movement,” said Susan Lubeck, Bay Area regional director of Bend the Arc, a Jewish social justice organization that advocates for marriage equality. Bend the Arc has joined friend-of-the-court briefs in various same-sex marriage court cases, including United States v. Windsor, the 2013 Supreme Court case that struck down the Defense of Marriage Act. During the Proposition 8 campaign, the California-based Progressive Jewish Alliance (which later merged with New York–based Jewish Funds for Justice to become Bend the Arc, a national organization), had two organizers working in the Bay Area to mobilize the base against Proposition 8.

Rena Frantz (left) and Ora Prochovnick were married in 1996 by Rabbi Yoel Kahn.

On Election Day in 2008, 52 percent of the electorate voted in favor of Prop 8, and in 2009 the California Supreme Court upheld it (it was struck down by a federal judge in 2010). The Jewish community came out in force to protest. “We have always been a presence on the streets,” Lubeck said.

Literally. On the day the proposition was upheld, protesters gathered in front of the Supreme Court of California building in Civic Center Plaza. Jewish groups, including the Progressive Jewish Alliance, the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council and the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation’s LGBT alliance, gathered around a chuppah that had been erected near the court steps. About 160 people were arrested when they sat down in the street, including 30 religious leaders. Among them were Sha’ar Zahav Rabbi Camille Angel and Rabbi Sydney Mintz of Congregation Emanu-El.

“I could stand under the chuppah and marry people [as a rabbi], but I was not able to have that right myself,” explained Mintz, who married her first wife in 1994 in a Jewish ceremony at a time when the union was not legally recognized.

The path to marriage equality in California had many twists and turns before it became law in 2013. In 2003, the Legislature passed a strong domestic partnership law, AB205, which gave registered domestic partners most of the same rights and responsibilities as married couples. Same-sex partners were briefly granted full marriage rights through a 2008 state Supreme Court ruling, but those rights were yanked away later that year when voters passed Proposition 8. In 2010, federal district Judge Vaughn Walker ruled that Proposition 8 violated the U.S. Constitution’s equal protection clause; that ruling was later affirmed in 2013 when the U.S. Supreme Court dismissed the final appeal in the case.

Protesters gather at state Capitol in November 2008 after passage of Proposition 8. photo/wikipedia

“Separate is never really equal,” said Alice Kessler, the former director of government affairs for Equality California, one of the key organizations that has pressed for full marriage equality in the state. Without legal marriage, same-sex couples didn’t have the inheritance rights, tax benefits, insurance benefits and other rights that heterosexual married couples took for granted.

Couples often drafted complicated prenuptial agreements to formalize their financial partnerships. Families with children had to undergo formal adoption proceedings with social worker interviews and home studies in order to guarantee parental rights.

“When Prop 8 fell, I gave a sermon and … talked about rights heterosexual people have through marriage,” Mintz said. “When I brought up the example of having to adopt my own children, it was shocking to people.”

Even though Californians of all sexual orientations can now marry, they face challenges if they move across state lines. A married gay couple that moved to Texas, for example, would not be able to collect federal Social Security survivor benefits because the state would not recognize the marriage, according to Deb Kinney, a San Francisco estate-planning attorney who has a large LGBT clientele. They wouldn’t even be able to get divorced, she said.

“Until there is a decisive determination about marriage across the country, there is a patchwork of laws,” said Kinney, a member of Sha’ar Zahav who served on the board of Equality California.

Celebrating in San Francisco after August 2010 court decision on Prop 8 are (clockwise, from left) Rachel Biale, Susan Lubeck, Rabbi Rosalind Glazer, Margee Churchon, Rabbi David Cooper and Marilyn Golden.

Due to the changing status of same-sex marriage over the last decade, many couples have been married more than once. Prochovnick, for instance, had a Jewish wedding in the 1990s; then she and her wife had a civil ceremony in 2004, when Newsom issued marriage licenses for same-sex couples; after those marriages were voided, the couple wed again legally in 2008 before Proposition 8 passed.

Arthur Slepian, the executive director of A Wider Bridge, an organization that builds relationships between LGBT Jews in the U.S. and Israel, also married his husband twice, in civil ceremonies in 2004 and 2008. He said Angel, his rabbi at Sha’ar Zahav, was overrun with requests for weddings in 2008. She advised congregants to marry legally, but said some of them would have to wait before she could officiate, as she needed time to conduct premarital counseling and do thoughtful preparations. “I can’t be a factory for Jewish weddings,” he remembers her saying.

Multiple weddings became the norm. Mintz, the Emanu-El rabbi, said “I married one couple three times. It’s too bad they had to go through [so many] different weddings, but it [finally] stuck.”

The country’s swift progress on marriage equality has surprised even its strongest advocates. Though some in the LGBT rights movement questioned whether the political energy would be better spent on ending housing or employment discrimination for LGBT individuals, most agree that the spread of marriage rights across the country has signaled a broader acceptance.

Arthur Slepian (left) and Gerry Llamado at their 2008 wedding

“I think it’s been successful beyond what people’s wildest dreams might have imagined,” Lubeck said. “I think that we need to celebrate the really unprecedented levels of visibility and acceptance and the destigmatization of gay people.”

The Reform and Conservative movements both support same-sex marriage. In 1996, the Reform Central Conference of American Rabbis issued a resolution in favor of full civil marriage for same-sex couples; a 2000 resolution from the same body supported “the decision of those [rabbis] who choose to officiate at rituals of union for same-gender couples, and … the decision of those who do not.” In 2006, a committee of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, made it permissible for rabbis to preside over same-sex weddings, though many in the movement still had reservations; in 2012, the Conservative movement issued ritual guidelines for performing same-sex weddings.

There is still a range of acceptance within the Jewish community. Increasing numbers of Reform and Conservative rabbis will perform same-sex weddings. Conservative Rabbi Menachem Creditor of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley has been officiating at same-sex weddings since 2002, several years before the Conservative movement sanctioned them. Rabbi Corey Helfand of Peninsula Sinai Congregation, a Conservative synagogue in Foster City, has never officiated at a same-sex wedding but said he would if asked. A year ago, he began working with his synagogue’s ritual committee to create a policy to welcome LGBT people into the community.

“People are who they are, and they love who they love,” Helfand said. “We welcome and embrace all without judgment.”

The right to marry is just one part of the battle for LGBT rights. If same-sex marriage becomes legal in all 50 states, it will mean LGBT couples can marry in places where they can also be fired for their sexual orientation (29 states) or where lawmakers are trying to protect small-business owners who don’t want to serve gay clients on the grounds of “religious freedom.” Achieving full equality in all arenas will be the next frontier in this civil rights movement. But for now, LGBT advocates are enjoying their achievements and feeling cautiously hopeful for the imminent Supreme Court ruling.

“It’s akin to being in the desert for 40 years and not know if you’re ever going to come out,” Kinney said. “And once you realize you’re going to come out, you realize it’s fabulous.”

Drew Himmelstein
Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a former J. reporter who writes about education, families and Jewish life. She lives with her husband and two sons.