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Progress for LGBT Jews (and non-Jews) in the UK

On February 23, 2010 by Sharon

[[This blog post was originally written for Jewlicious.com]].

(I know I live in New York, but today I need to comment on an issue surfacing across the Atlantic Ocean — in the United Kingdom.)

If a new bill passes next month in the United Kingdom, British same-sex couples will soon be crushing glasses and signing ketubahs with the official blessings of their rabbis and families.

A group of Liberal Jewish rabbis and Anglican ministers have come together in favor of an amendment to the country’s 2010 Equality Bill, which would allow same-sex civil partnerships to take place in British synagogues and other religious institutions, writes Jessica Elgot, a reporter at The Jewish Chronicle in London. The Equality Bill, she continues, will be up for debate in the House of Lords next month, and currently has the support of Liberal Jews, Unitarians and Quakers. You can read through Parliament’s discussion of the bill here, by scrolling down to the paragraph just above sub-head “25 Jan 2010 : Column 1199.”

“[The amendment's] intention is to remove the prohibition against civil partnerships taking place in religious buildings,” the document reads. “I shall repeat that: it is to remove the prohibition against civil partnerships taking place in religious organisations. It is a straightforward amendment. It does not seek to force religious institutions to host civil partnerships and I would not intend it to. It simply has to be a matter for them to decide whether or not they wish to do so.”

Rainbow flags in Tel Aviv - Wikimedia Commons
Rainbow flags in Tel Aviv – Wikimedia Commons

As in most of the United States, gay marriages are still not recognized by law in the United Kingdom. But in Britain, where church is not separate from state, the government can take this prohibition one step further. Civil unions may be permitted throughout the country, but at the moment, these same-sex partnerships cannot occur within the boundaries of a house of worship.  That’s right, it’s currently illegal for a rabbi to unite two men or two women under a chuppah in England.

And now, at the behest of some forward-thinking Quakers, the House of Lords is aiming to repeal this ban.

While same-sex marriages are only legal in a few select states here in America, all religious institutions have the power to conduct same-sex civil unions if they so choose, and many have been doing so for quite some time. Synagogues all over the US perform same-sex marriages, like Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco, where marriages went from being not recognized by law, to being recognized, to now unfortunately not being recognized by law once again. In New York, Congregation Beth Simchat Torah performs many marriage ceremonies, even though gay marriage has never ever yet been legal in New York State. Even in Israel, where laws are strongly influenced by an Orthodox rabbinate, is doing a very good job welcoming theLGBT community into its fold.

Although the laws should certainly be changed to make same-sex marriage legal both here and in the United Kingdom, a religious institution should always be a place of refuge for every congregant it serves — no matterwhat the law says.  I hope that when the House of Lords takes this bill to the floor next month, the British government does decide to allow for marriages to occur within the synagogues, whether or not they are officially recognized by the country.

And in yet another progressive move for Britain, Schools Secretary Ed Balls recently decided that all secondary schools, including parochial schools, will be forced to teach “full, broad, balanced curriculum on sex and relationship education” — which includes topics like sexually-transmitted diseases, contraception, pregnancy, abortion and homosexuality, The Telegraph reported today. This means that religious schools — even Orthodox Jewish schools — will need to address topics like civil unions and same-sex parenting without any homophobia whatsoever.

I wonder how Britain’s haredi communities are going to respond to this…

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Sharon Udasin is a staff writer at The Jewish Week. Follow her on Twitter or e-mail her at sharon@sharonudasin.com.

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I also posted a lengthy comment in response to Jessica Elgot’s article here, on The Jewish Chronicle’s Web site.

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