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Much enthusiasm, muted criticism in Jewish reactions to Obama’s gay marriage support

President Barack Obama participates in an interview with Robin Roberts of ABC's "Good Morning America," in the Cabinet Room of the White House, May 9, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — As soon as President Obama wrapped up the television interview in which he endorsed same-sex marriage, he called an evangelical minister who advises him to offer a heads up. Jack Lew, the White House chief of staff, made a similar call to the Orthodox Union.

The calls, made Wednesday before excerpts from the interview hit the Internet, demonstrated the White House’s determination to preempt any backlash that the endorsement might engender from religious groups. Obama administration officials have been careful to emphasize that the president also backs protections for religious groups that oppose same-sex marriage.

“He called to inform us about what the president was going to announce and put it in context,” Nathan Diament, the OU’s executive director of public policy, said of the call from Lew, himself an Orthodox Jew.

The move appeared to have yielded some dividends.

The OU said in a statement that it was “disappointed” by the president’s new stance and reiterated Orthodox Jewish opposition to “any effort to change the definition of marriage to include same-sex unions.” But the group also said that it “appreciated” Obama’s praise of New York State’s same-sex marriage law, which offers some protections for religious institutions that oppose same-sex marriage.

The Jewish community’s reactions to Obama’s remarks were auspicious for the White House: There was great enthusiasm from most quarters, along with restrained criticism from Orthodox Jewish opponents of same-sex marriage. Obama notably did not pair his endorsement of same-sex marriage with any nods toward a legislative effort, since he says the issue should be left to the states.

Polls have found that upwards of three-quarters of American Jews support same-sex marriage. Outside the Orthodox world, Jewish groups generally back it as well.

Words like “historic” peppered statements by Jewish groups welcoming Obama’s remarks.

“It is a significant and historic step forward in the pursuit of equal opportunity, individual liberty and freedom from discrimination,” the Anti-Defamation League said in a statement, “and underscores the fact that no American should be denied access to the benefits of civil marriage because of his or her sexual orientation.”

In the interview, which aired in full on Thursday, Obama — who had previously said he backed civil unions but did not support same-sex marriage — described what he has called his evolution on the issue.

“I have to tell you that over the course of several years as I have talked to friends and family and neighbors, when I think about members of my own staff who are in incredibly committed monogamous relationships, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together,” he said, “when I think about those soldiers or airmen or Marines or sailors who are out there fighting on my behalf and yet feel constrained, even now that ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ is gone, because they are not able to commit themselves in a marriage, at a certain point I’ve just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.”

The Reform movement’s Religious Action Center described the president’s remarks as “a key moment in the advance of civil rights in America.”

“These rights are due no less to same-sex couples than heterosexual ones, as the president’s comments today acknowledge,” the RAC said.

Among other groups praising the president’s endorsement were the National Council of Jewish Women, Hadassah, the National Jewish Democratic Council and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

Another Orthodox umbrella group, Agudath Israel of America, refrained from directly criticizing Obama in its statement, noting that the president was expressing his “personal feeling.”

Rabbi Avi Shafran, Agudah’s director of public affairs, told JTA in an email that the president’s endorsement was “unfortunate” to the degree that it advanced the cause of same-sex marriage. But Shafran also noted that “The president was clear about the fact that he was sharing the fruits of his own personal contemplation of the issue, not advancing any new federal initiative. He is leaving the definition of marriage to each state’s electorate.”

That was the balance sought by the White House, according to an administration insider. In addition to Lew’s call to Diament after the interview was recorded and before ABC released excerpts, Obama called Joel Hunter, an evangelical megachurch pastor who has been one of the president’s spiritual advisers.

Hunter told The Washington Post that while he disagreed with the president’s new position, it did not damage their relationship. But Hunter told the paper that he was concerned about the effect that the push for same-sex marriage would have on religious liberty.

“If there is a law that you cannot discriminate between same-sex couples and heterosexual couples, then eventually there will be pressure on the Church to obey the law,” Hunter said. “And there will be lawsuits that come testing this thing, and we just know that we will certainly be pressured to conform to the law.”

While the White House tried to reassure religious conservatives by stressing the measured nature of the president’s remarks, this did not seem to dampen the enthusiasm of Jewish supporters of same-sex marriage.

“It will be a milestone in American history for gay rights,” Rabbi David Saperstein, who directs the Religious Action Center, told JTA. “He was laying down a marker about his personal commitment and not trying to deal with the policy issue. His statement provides momentum.”

Deborah Lauter, the ADL’s civil rights director, said the president’s statement follows a series of legislative advances on gay rights issues.

She listed the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” military policy that kept gay troops closeted, the extension of hate crimes laws to include gay victims, and the administration’s refusal to defend the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act in court. She noted the recent momentum in Congress to pass legislation that would protect gay employees from being fired on the basis of their sexual orientation.

“It is more of a symbolic statement, but the administration has been doing concrete steps,” she said.

Jewish groups that oppose same-sex marriage may have adopted a measured tone in response to the president’s remarks, but there were still signs that the issue can be divisive within the Jewish community.

Agudah blasted the National Jewish Democratic Council for describing Obama’s statement as advancing “tikkun olam,” or the Jewish imperative to make the world a better place.

“To imply that a religious value like ‘tikkun olam’ — and by association, Judaism — is somehow implicated in a position like the one the president articulated is outrageous, offensive and wrong,” Agudah said. “We hereby state, clearly and without qualification, that the Torah forbids homosexual acts, and sanctions only the union of a man and a woman in matrimony.”

The NJDC’s chair, Marc Stanley, had referenced Obama’s “unmatched record of progress in favor of equal rights for gay and lesbian Americans.”

“President Obama has admirably continued to demonstrate the values of tikkun olam in his work to make America a better place for all Americans,” Stanley said. “I am truly proud of President Obama and know that so many others in the Jewish community share my feelings.”

The Republican Jewish Coalition, which does not take a position on same-sex marriage, highlighted on its Twitter feed the statements of the OU and Agudah. Pressed by a Democratic activist on Twitter, however, the RJC said it did not necessarily support the groups’ views. “But we do acknowledge that Orthodox Jews and traditional Jewish views exist,” the RJC tweeted.