Prop 8, the White House, & Same-Sex Marriage

By Rabbi Arthur Waskow

The issue of same-sex marriage has engaged religious progressives in some important ways in the weeks since California voters voted 52%-48% for "Proposition 8," which canceled their Supreme Court's decision that same-sex marriage is a constitutionally protected right.

On the one hand, many religious progressives in California have been working to overturn Proposition 8 through a lawsuit.

On the other hand, President-elect Obama has invited Rev. Rick Warren, a leading supporter of Prop 8, who has said that homosexuality is as sinful as pederasty or bestiality, to invoke God at his Inauguration on January 20.

I want to address both events in this letter. Please be sure to read through to the Inauguration question.

A coalition of California religious organizations has filed with the state Supreme Court an amicus ("friend of the court") brief asking the court to nullify Proposition 8, which requires that marriage in California be valid only between a man and woman.

The coalition is led by the California Council of Churches, and includes the Progressive Jewish Alliance as well as other groups. They asked clergy and religious organizations around the country to join in the brief. Hundreds have. The Shalom Center has signed it, and we invite you to.

California's Constitution distinguishes between two ways of changing itself. One is by "amendment," which can be done through a public "initiative" by the citizens of California through majority vote. The other is by "revision," which requires passage by two-thirds of the legislature or by a specially called constitutional convention, and then ratification by the voters. "Revision" is intended for radical changes in the basic Constitutional framework.

The legal argument of the case before the California court is that Prop 8 took away a basic human right from a selected population, that this violates the basic constitutional provision for equal protection of the laws, and that such a violation is a profound revision, not merely an amendment, to the California constitution.

It is as if marriage were to be defined as between Christians only; no vote of the public could constitutionally accomplish this.

The brief argues that such a deep violation of the basic nature of California's basic political structure violates religious liberty as well --- the religious liberty of Jews, Unitarians, and many other denominations to not only hold a "religious" ceremony of marriage for two men or two women but to have that ceremony confer the same legal obligations that a religious ceremony by Catholics or Mormons confers on a man and woman.

Indeed, the concern that Prop 8 "establishes" some religious beliefs as more legitimate than others is supported by the actual history, in which it was the Mormon and Catholic churches that poured money and energy into passing Prop 8.

The brief reminds the court of times when popular majorities in parts of the US have attacked the rights of Jews, Mormons, Catholics, Jehovah's Witnesses, Quakers, and Unitarians.

You can sign the brief by clicking to

My own view is that while this brief makes sense and I hope the court upholds it, the deeper task of those who support same-sex marriage is to mobilize public opinion. That means taking on the religious arguments against it, on a religious as well as a personal-experience basis. To see my essay "'Newsweek,' Same-Sex Marriage, and Torah" on this approach, click to ---

Given the importance of mobilizing public opinion, I am deeply disappointed by the decision of President-elect Obama to have Rev. Rick Warren invoke God at the Inauguration on January 20. To give Reverend Warren this honorific, symbolic role is precisely to honor his opinions and his leadership. Mr. Obama has defended his decision by saying that he hopes for an America where it is possible to disagree without being disagreeable. A praiseworthy goal -- - but not choosing to invite someone to invoke God at the Inauguration is not being disagreeable. Civil dialogue could continue without giving Rev. Warren this honorific role, one that is bound to affect public opinion.

Someone who uses the power of the state to deprive people of their right to the religious celebration and legal protection of their loving relationship is a bully -- no matter whether he smiles and smiles, he's still a bully.

The White House, Theodore Roosevelt once said, is a "bully pulpit." Noon on Inauguration Day is that pulpit at its peak. TR did not mean the White House should become a "bully's pulpit."

Whom could Obama have invited instead?

I do think it was a good idea to reach out to evangelicals, but there was a far better possible person -- better religiously, symbolically, politically.

Reverend Richard Cizik, who for 28 years has been vice-president and chief lobbyist of the National Association of Evangelicals, recently did an act that Jews called tshuvah. Literally, that means "turning" one's self toward the God Who is always evolving. That is the most profoundly religious act a person can undertake, and it often means losing prestige and power.

Cizik has put himself on the line for years, insisting that a true evangelical Christian must take action to heal God's creation from the wounds humans are inflicting on it -- especially from the global climate disaster looming before us. It was not a popular opinion among the institutional evangelical leadership, because they saw it as distracting from the sexuality issues - abortion, same-sex rights, etc. But more and more young evangelicals agreed.

Then a few weeks ago Cizik was being interviewed by NPR's Terry Gross:

Gross: "But now as you identify more with younger voters, would you say you have changed on gay marriage?"

Cizik: "I'm shifting, I have to admit. In other words, I would willingly say that I believe in civil unions. I don't officially support redefining marriage from its traditional definition, I don't think."

For this he was forced to resign.

Honoring people who despite institutional pressure move toward God's justice, God's compassion, God's shalom -- now that's an act of religious celebration. Might inviting Cizik have been seen as an act of confrontation? Yes, but not a confrontation with evangelical Christians --- since that's who Cizik is. Rather a confrontation with rigid bullies at the top of some evangelical institutions. A gift of hope and fresh air for evangelicals, young and old, who have begun to Wrestle. And a gift of fresh air to Americans at large, who might have remembered that invoking God does not mean bowing down to stodginess.

Obama has --- and rightly --- celebrated the confluence of his Inauguration with the birthday of Martin Luther King. Does he remember that before Dr. King became a saint he was a troublemaker? Rejected by many leaders of official Christianity, especially when he opposed the Vietnam War?

Obama should have asked Rev. Cizik to invoke the God we all need --- the God who Wrestles with us and asks us to Wrestle, all night and every morning, with our beliefs about the universe.

That would have put the issue where it belongs - in serious public dialogue and debate.

And one other thing he might have done. After a year of fleeing mosques as if they indeed were houses of Hell --- instead of having the courage of General Colin Powell to say, "Those rumors that I'm a Muslim are lies - but so what if I were?" --- he could have broadened the knowledge and deepened the spiritual experience of American society by inviting a Muslim -- say Imam Yahya Hendi or Imam Hamza Yusuf -- to join with others to lead us in public prayer on Inauguration Day.

With blessings of shalom, salaam, peace --
Rabbi Arthur Waskow