The vast majority of Jewish people support the freedom to marry, knowing that strengthening gay families helps many and harms no one. The freedom to marry is not about forcing any rabbi or synagogue – or, for that matter, any priest, minister, imam, mosque, or church – to perform a ceremony. It's about the very important values of religious pluralism, freedom, and equal protection under the law that matter so much in America – and that Jews have a strong stake in safeguarding.
My own dedication to winning the freedom to marry has been consistent with my Jewish values. When I first wrote my Harvard Law School thesis on the freedom to marry in 1983, I knew that the core values mandating the freedom to marry are values we all cherish: values of love, connection, inclusion, equality, the dream of finding someone with whom we want to build and share our life and making a commitment to them in front of our friends and family – one that is fully respected under law. Being able to share in the freedom to marry signifies a dream, and the work, of love and family; it means caring for someone and sharing in the full responsibilities and protections that come with commitment, from the wedding until death, with taxes in between.
Judaism’s role in the freedom-to-marry movement has been a proud and important one. Many leaders of our cause are Jewish, and many early and influential supporters and champions are as well. Jewish institutions were some of the earliest and strongest in support of gay people, our families, and the freedom to marry. The Reform and Reconstructionist movements took strong and explicit stands, as has the Conservative rabbinate. Freedom to Marry’s national strategy for winning marriage, what we call the Roadmap to Victory, derives from the lessons of history of other civil rights movements supported by Jewish leaders. In June’s historic Supreme Court ruling striking down the central component of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the plaintiff, Edie Windsor (Jewish), was married by the first openly gay judge in Canada (also Jewish). The Union for Reform Judaism, Central Conference of American Rabbis, and Women of Reform Judaism all filed amicus briefs urging the Court to reach the result it did; we will need their ongoing support as we work to end marriage discrimination nationwide.
My own parents have been a warm and loving source of inspiration to me about the value of marriage throughout their nearly 60 years as husband and wife. They've always put their children first and have always been there for us, exemplars of love and marriage who gave me life lessons I cherish. My siblings and I went to Jewish summer camp and Hebrew school, and observed Jewish holidays. Our family had a strong Jewish consciousness and a Jewish identity. I learned the importance of family and of tikkun olam, the importance of working for what's right and making a difference. And when my immigrant husband and I were finally able to wed – here in our home of New York, where my grandparents settled after coming through Ellis Island – we wove Jewish rituals alongside Chinese into our ceremony before our families and friends.
Marriage is a powerful and resonant language and locus of family, connection, dedication, and love, and our work to win the freedom to marry has been an engine of inclusion and progress, reducing discrimination against gay people and opening up dreams of full participation in society and under the law. Our work is far from finished, but we have irrefutable momentum and, through the Roadmap to Victory, the winning strategy. Now we must finish the job. I am confident that Jewish values and Jewish voices will remain crucial contributors to the work at hand as we win the freedom to marry nationwide and help mend the world.
Evan Wolfson is the founder and president of Freedom to Marry, the campaign to win marriage nationwide, and author of Why Marriage Matters: America, Equality, and Gay People’s Right to Marry. In 2004, TIME magazine named him one of the "100 most influential people in the world," and in 2012, he won the Barnard Medal of Distinction alongside President Barack Obama.
Learn more about the history of marriage equality in the United States and Canada in “I Now Pronounce You Wife & Wife,” a personal essay by Justice Harvey Brownstone, the openly gay, Jewish judge who officiated at the wedding of Edie Windsor and Thea Spyer. This story appeared in the Fall 2013 issue of Reform Judaism magazine.