Sasso: Court took giant leap for humanity

(July 2, 2015)

Driving to my 50th anniversary high school reunion in Philadelphia, listening to the radio, I learned of the Supreme Court decision to recognize gay marriage. This is a time to celebrate a momentous civil right victory. It is also a time to reflect on the many Supreme Court decisions that had shaped my lifetime.

In 1954, Brown v. The Board of Education led to racial integration in public school. In 1962, Abington School District v. Schempp ensured religious freedom by eliminating the obligatory recitation of prayer and Bible reading in public schools. In 1967, Loving v. Virginia legalized interracial marriage in our nation. In 1973, Roe v. Wade extended the rights of reproductive freedom for women.

Each of these landmark decisions has granted freedoms and protections in the realms of religion, gender and race. All this, in one lifetime. And yet each of these achievements has been a partial victory that has been challenged in subsequent years. Laws have been changed, yet the hearts and minds of many in society have not.

Recent efforts to close Planned Parenthood clinics and to restrict contraception from medical insurance coverage, the controversy surrounding the flying of the Confederate flag, attempts to reintroduce religious symbols in public places, and attempts to subvert the civil rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in the name of religion, all point to the need to be constantly vigilant and proactive in the preservation of hard-won freedoms. What has been proclaimed in the courts needs to be promulgated and lived in the streets.

Unfortunately, religion has often been used to counter these freedoms. The news abounds with references to religious opposition to many of these court decisions. This has especially been evident in recent weeks with references to religious leaders’ opposition to same-sex marriage. And while it is true that no member of the clergy or religious institution would be obligated by law to officiate at a same-sex marriage, it should be noted that many Christian and Jewish leaders and denominations have been in the forefront of advocacy for this right. Those positions, as was advocacy for civil rights for blacks and reproductive freedom for women, are based on deeply held religious convictions and values concerning human dignity and equality.

We are proud to say that the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist movements in Judaism, which represent the majority of American Jews, have for decades endorsed the principles of gender equality and have authorized the ordination of gay clergy and officiation at same-sex marriage ceremonies. It is noteworthy that the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia on Thursday hosted a program to commemorate the first Reminder Demonstration in support of gay rights 50 years ago on Independence Day in Philadelphia.

To affirm in ceremony a committed loving relationship is a religious act. Justice Anthony Kennedy speaking for the court majority wrote, “No union is more profound than marriage for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice and family. In forming a marital union two people have become something greater than they once were.” These words capture beautifully the spiritual and sacred nature of marriage.

Just as there are different political parties and ideologies, so are there varying expressions of religion. To paint all religion with the brush of resistance to change is to misrepresent the nature of religion.

In the summer of 1969, Neil Armstrong, upon setting foot on the moon said, “This is one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”

This summer, we can rightly say that the Supreme Court has taken “one small step for same-sex couples, one giant leap for humanity.”

Sasso is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth-El Zedeck and director of the Religion, Spirituality and the Arts Initiative at Butler University.