Half of American Jews favor legalizing gay marriages and another third support civil unions — support strikingly at odds with the majority of Americans, according to the first survey of American Jewish attitudes on the subject.
The survey, conducted by the American Jewish Committee, found that only 13 percent of American Jews do not favor any legal recognition of a gay couple’s relationship. In comparison, a national survey in February by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that general voters oppose gay marriages by more than 2-to-1 (65 percent to 28 percent). And 67 percent of Protestant voters strongly oppose gay marriage.
The AJCommittee survey covered several topics, including the Jewish community’s views regarding anti-Semitism and Jewish identity. In addition, it had questions about the presidential election, affinity for Israel and international relations. (See story on page 28.)
The survey’s release came just days after voters in Louisiana by a margin of about 80 percent approved a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. Christian conservatives had led the drive in favor of the ban.
President George W. Bush announced Feb. 24 that he favors a constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriages. His Democratic rival, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, opposes such a move, although he has long opposed gay marriage. Instead, Kerry said he favors state-sanctioned civil unions that extend legal protections to gay couples.
David Harris, executive director of the AJCommittee, noted that the wording of the questions in his survey were identical to that used by two other recent national surveys. He said that a CBS-New York Times poll this summer found that only 28 percent of all Americans support legalizing marriage, compared with 49 percent of American Jews. Another 36 percent of American Jews said gay couples should be allowed to form civil unions but not legally marry.
And he said an NBC-Wall Street Journal poll in June found that 51 percent of Americans support a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages, compared with 24 percent of American Jews. Another 74 percent of American Jews said they opposed such an amendment.
Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, which serves the city’s gay and lesbian Jewish community, said of the AJCommittee’s survey results: “I’m thrilled. I think this is a great way to start the New Year.”
She said she was “not shocked” by the results because of the Jewish community’s traditional “respect for civil rights for all Americans.”
Allowing gay unions to be sanctified by a rabbi is something that must be “determined by individual rabbis and synagogues,” Rabbi Kleinbaum stressed. “If they want to say that their movement should not confer religious marriage, that is their right.”
But the rabbi said that “civil marriage is a civil right and everyone should support that.”
Evan Wolfson, executive director of Freedom to Marry, a national organization that advocates marriage equality, said the survey is a “very important recognition that American Jews know discrimination when they see it and are willing to speak out against it. … It is not surprising that American Jews are in the forefront of opposing discrimination, as we always have been.”
Wolfson, author of the book, “Why Marriage Matters: America, Equality and Gay People’s Right to Marry,” said of the Louisiana vote: “Our opponents are stampeding people to vote before they have had a chance to see the reality of gay families. … No one is hurt when discrimination ends.”
He pointed out that American Jews and Unitarians are leaders in speaking out against discrimination.
Janet Hayes, a spokeswoman for the Unitarian Universalist Association, which represents about 150,000 adults in 1,000 congregations nationwide, said that although there has never been a poll of members, Unitarian Universalist ministers have been performing same-sex marriages since the 1960s. She said it became a widespread practice in the church in the 1980s, and that in 1996 delegates from congregations across the country voted to call for the legalization of same-sex marriage.
“There is no longer an internal debate” on this issue, Hayes said. “This is now part of our life.”
Individual congregations of the United Church of Christ, a Protestant organization with 1.3 million members in some 6,000 congregations nationwide, have also been supportive, and earlier this year its executive council urged the defeat of any federal or state “defense of marriage”-type legislation. It also called for “serious, respectful, responsible discussions about … marriage, including diverse understandings of marriage.”
The Pew Research Center’s February survey also found that gay marriage had surpassed other major social issues like abortion and gun control in helping voters decide on a presidential candidate. It found that voters said they would not vote for a candidate who disagreed with them on gay marriage — even if they agreed with his other positions. By comparison, only 34 percent said they would not vote for a candidate who disagreed with them on abortion, and 32 percent said the same about gun control.
But interestingly, the poll found that the gay marriage issue was crucial only for those against same-sex marriages. Supporters of such unions said a candidate’s position on the issue would not affect their vote.
Among the other findings of the AJCommittee survey, it was found that American Jews believe anti-Semitism is a bigger threat to Jewish life in the United States than intermarriage. Only 32 percent believe intermarriage to be the number one threat, compared with 66 percent who believe it to be anti-Semitism.
Only 6 percent of American Jews do not consider anti-Semitism a problem in the U.S., while 27 percent perceive it to be a “very serious problem” and 67 percent label it “somewhat of a problem.” And while 24 percent believe it to be a “very serious problem” on college campuses, 56 percent believe it to be “somewhat of a problem,” while 12 percent view it as “no problem at all.”
Forty-five percent of American Jews believe the level of anti-Semitism will remain the same in the U.S. in the future, while 33 percent believe it will “increase somewhat” and 9 percent believe it will “increase greatly.”
The survey found also that 36 percent of American Jews believe Muslims to be the most anti-Semitic group in the U.S., followed by 10 percent who believe that of Evangelical Protestants. And of all the different ethnic groups in Europe, 43 percent believe that Muslims are the most anti-Semitic in Europe. In addition, 96 percent of American Jews believe anti-Semitism in the Muslim world is a very serious or somewhat of a serious problem.
And it found that 64 percent of American Jews said France has a “very serious problem” of anti-Semitism. Also, it found that 61 percent of American Jews believe that anti-Semitism worldwide will increase greatly or somewhat over the next several years.
The AJCommittee survey, which was done by Market Facts, was conducted through telephone calls to 1,000 Jews between Aug. 18 and Sept. 1. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percent.