Orthodox groups brace for consequences of same-sex marriage ruling

The name that keeps coming up when Orthodox Jewish groups consider the consequences of the U.S. Supreme Court decision extending same-sex marriage rights to all states has little to do with Jews or gays.

Bob Jones University, the private Protestant college in South Carolina, lost its tax-exempt status in 1983 when the Supreme Court ruled that its policies banning interracial dating on campus were “wholly incompatible with the concepts underlying tax exemption.”

Orthodox Jewish organizations, several of which publicly dissented from the Jewish community’s broad endorsement of the High Court’s decision, now worry similar consequences could befall them.

“It remains to be seen whether gay rights advocates and/or the government will seek to apply the Bob Jones rule to all institutions that dissent from recognizing same-sex marriage,” Nathan Diament, the Washington director for the Orthodox Union (OU), said in an email.

The groups point to an exchange in April between Donald Verrilli, the Obama administration solicitor general, and Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, who asked if a school could lose its tax-exempt status if it opposed gay marriage.

“I don’t think I can answer that question without knowing more specifics, but it’s certainly going to be an issue,” Verrilli replied. “It is going to be an issue.”

How much of an issue now exercises Jewish groups. Will Jewish schools lose tax-exempt status if they don’t recognize gay couples? Could they become ineligible for government grants or face discrimination lawsuits for teaching traditional Jewish perspective on homosexuality?

Abba Cohen, who directs the Washington office for Agudath Israel of America, called the court’s ruling an “ominous” sign.

“When an impression is given that religious views are bigoted and are vilified, and that [their adherents] really should be given the status of second-class citizens, once you’re dealing in that kind of atmosphere, you don’t know what kind of disadvantages and disabilities people will suffer,” Cohen said.

After the court’s decision was released on June 26, an array of Jewish groups were rejoicing, but the Orthodox groups — including Agudah, the OU and the Rabbinical Council of America  —  expressed worry.

“We are deeply concerned that, as a result of today’s ruling, and as the dissenting justices have pointed out, members and institutions of traditional communities like the Orthodox Jewish community we represent may incur moral opprobrium and risk tangible negative consequence if they refuse to transgress their beliefs, and even if they simply teach and express their religious views publicly,” said a statement from Agudah, which had filed an amicus brief opposing same-sex marriage.

The justices themselves acknowledged the possible fallout for religious groups. Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, said the First Amendment protected religious groups that wished to advocate their view that same-sex marriage is illegitimate. But in their dissents, Chief Justice John Roberts and Clarence Thomas said such protections were insufficient.

“Hard questions arise when people of faith exercise religion in ways that may be seen to conflict with the new right to same-sex marriage,” Roberts wrote. “There is little doubt that these and similar questions will soon be before this Court. Unfortunately, people of faith can take no comfort in the treatment they receive from the majority today.”

Marc Stern, counsel for the American Jewish Committee (AJC), which also filed an amicus brief in favor of same-sex marriage, said immediate consequences were unlikely at the federal level. But on the local and state levels, there would be challenges.

“Will a state or city official take the decision to remove a tax exemption? In San Francisco, it’s a possibility. In New York City, it might happen,” said Stern, who pointed out he was speaking as a legal analyst.

Another potential challenge cited by Diament is whether groups that reject gay marriage might become ineligible for government grants, citing a debate during the George W. Bush administration about whether drug rehabilitation programs run by proselytizing religious groups should be eligible for funding through the White House’s faith-based initiative.

“We also can anticipate a fight akin to what we had in the context of the Bush faith-based initiative — whether institutions must recognize same-sex marriage to participate in government grant programs,” Diament said.

Cohen also wondered whether Jewish adoption agencies might be prohibited from limiting placement to heterosexual couples or if schools run by religious groups that reject homosexuality could be subject to discrimination lawsuits. 

Hynes’ shift on sex abuse cases puts him on collision course with Agudah

Pressure is growing on the Brooklyn district attorney and the country’s major haredi Orthodox umbrella organization to change the ways they handle allegations of sexual abuse and molestation in the Orthodox community.

A series of recent reports by The New York Jewish Week, the Forward and The New York Times have brought new scrutiny to the special program that Brooklyn D.A. Charles Hynes established in 2009 to handle sex abuse allegations among haredi Jews in New York.

Under the program, Kol Tzedek, perpetrators’ names were kept confidential and Hynes apparently gave Agudath Israel of America, the Orthodox umbrella group, the impression that he sanctioned the practice of rabbis reviewing allegations before they were brought to police.

A firestorm of controversy has surrounded the program in recent weeks, in part due to a pair of front-page stories in The New York Times detailing the communal pressure that alleged victims of sex crimes face in the haredi community.

Hynes now appears to be taking a tougher and more explicit position against the practice of rabbis screening sex abuse allegations. The longtime D.A. told reporters that he will push for New York State to enact a law making it mandatory for rabbis to report sex abuse allegations, and The Jewish Week reported that Hynes will create a new intra-agency task force to deal with haredi sex abuse allegations.

The shift comes as David Zwiebel, Agudah’s executive vice president, reiterated his organization’s position that sex abuse cases should be reviewed by rabbis within the community before they are passed on to the police. It is not unusual in haredi communities for members first to consult rabbis on matters that could involve non-Jewish authorities or have legal implications.

In an interview with the Forward, Hynes reportedly said that he was in “sharp disagreement” with the Agudah’s position, arguing that the rabbis “have no experience or expertise in sex abuse.” The Forward quoted Hynes as saying that he stressed his opposition in a telephone call with Zwiebel last week.

Zwiebel “still thinks they have a responsibility to screen,” Hynes said. “I disagree.”

Meanwhile, Hynes spokesman Jerry Schmetterer told The Jewish Week that Zwiebel “risks having the rabbi prosecuted for obstructing a law enforcement investigation.”

The shift puts Hynes’ office at odds with the haredi Orthodox community—a problem the Kol Tzedek program was supposed to solve.

Cases against haredi sex abusers face a host of unique hurdles. Reporting a suspected sexual predator in the community to the police is seen by many haredim as a hostile act that threatens the community, and as a sin—“mesirah,” turning a fellow Jew over to the secular authorities.

Agudah officials reportedly have said that someone who has personally experienced or witnessed abuse could go directly to the authorities, but other allegations should be evaluated by a rabbi before being passed along to the police. In some cases, alleged perpetrators have enjoyed broad communal support, including community fundraising for their defense, The New York Times reports made clear.

For their part, haredi victims of sex abuse face communal pressure to stay silent. Even if they succeed in putting a perpetrator behind bars, victims may be ostracized or stigmatized, viewed by their community as tainted. They and their children may be shunned as unworthy partners for marriage.

Hynes’ Kol Tzedek program, by working with community rabbis and granting special anonymity to both victims and perpetrators, was meant to circumvent these problems.

In an interview last week with the New York Post, Hynes cited the insularity of Brooklyn’s haredi community and the need to protect sex-abuse victims from intimidation as the reason for not releasing the names of about 100 accused molesters from the community.

“Within days, people within this relentless community would identify the victims,” he told the Post. “Then the intimidation would start.”

Hynes’ office has boasted that the Kol Tzedek program has helped result in convictions in the haredi community while other district attorneys have failed to bring convictions. But an investigation by The Jewish Week showed that many of the 99 prosecutions claimed by Hynes’ office in fact predated the Kol Tzedek program.

Two weeks ago, Hynes said he would chair a new intra-agency task force on haredi sex abuse consisting of his office’s chief investigator and the heads of his Sex Crimes and Rackets divisions, The Jewish Week reported. The task force could involve the New York Police Department and members of the anti-abuse advocacy community, Hynes’ spokesman told the newspaper.

After Zweibel said his group would resist increased public pressure to lift its requirement that parents obtain rabbinic permission before going to the police, Hynes and the haredim appear to be on a collision course.

“We’re not going to compromise our essence and our integrity because we are nervous about a relationship that may be damaged with a government leader,” Zweibel told the Forward.