On January 20, 2009, I testified before the Indiana Senate Judiciary Committee. The committee was considering Senate Joint Resolution 13 (SJR 13) which would amend the Indiana Constitution to define marriage and to prohibit civil unions. Here is the full text of the proposed amendment which would, if adopted, be added to Indiana’s Bill of Rights:
I usually endeavor to keep separate my personal thoughts and opinions from those that I espouse on behalf of organizations with which I am affiliated (in particular the Indianapolis Jewish Community Relations Council for which I currently serve as president). My testimony before the Judiciary Committee was on behalf of the JCRC and in my capacity as president of that organization. Nevertheless, given the importance of the issue (it is, after all, a proposed amendment to Indiana’s Constitution) and the fact that my testimony is not only public record but was also aired on the Senate’s live web feed (and will apparently be available on the Senate’s archived feed at some point in the future), I have decided to reprint my prepared testimony here. I want to take a moment and give due credit to Mark Sniderman, a friend and colleague on the JCRC Board, who testified against SJR 7 (the predecessor to SJR 13) back in 2008. My testimony was based, in part, on his prepared remarks; I deleted some and added some, but he deserves credit for preparing a well thought out and articulated presentation that I was able to use as a framework for my remarks.
I’m sure that my actual words were not identical to my prepared testimony. Furthermore, in order to meet the five minute time limit that I was asked to observe, I selectively edited my prepared testimony as I went; I’ve endeavored to indicate the provisions that I omitted in red. In addition, I contemporaneously added to my testimony to address some of the arguments (or lack thereof) that had been offered by proponents of SJR 13. I’ve also endeavored to provide at least an idea of what that portion of my testimony consisted of in green.
Thank you Mr. Chair, Ranking Member, and Members of the Committee. My name is Michael Wallack. I am an attorney in private practice and I am privileged to rise on behalf of and in my capacity as the President of the Indianapolis Jewish Community Relations Council, in opposition to Senate Joint Resolution 13. The JCRC is comprised of representatives from every synagogue and Jewish membership organization in greater Indianapolis.
Our Jewish community supports the rule of law to assure equal rights, and we oppose constitutional amendments that restrict, rather than enhance, the rights of Hoosiers. Thus, we accordingly oppose SJR 13.
I believe that it is important to understand that we did not arrive at our position without due consideration; in fact, our community engaged in a process of learning, debate, and discussion, that lasted for nearly a year before we adopted our position. Several supporters of SJR 13 (and its predecessor) participated in that process in an open forum that we hosted on the subject. But eventually our community did adopt a position in opposition to the effort to amend our State’s Constitution.
We unconditionally support the core values of religious liberty, the separation of church and state; the safeguarding and advancement of civil rights; and the principle of equal protection under the law.
Jewish tradition teaches that each individual life is sacred and of infinite value. We are commanded to assist the less fortunate; to speak for those who cannot be heard; to stand by those who are unjustly treated; to be animated by the spirit of tikkun olam — the repair and mending of the world.
We Jews have known discrimination merely for being, or appearing to be, different; from the politest snub to unspeakably worse. Discrimination against any group of people is an insult to Jewish values. We are committed to a society that is just, compassionate, and fully democratic. Moreover, we strongly value the notion of a pluralistic, democratic society that, while recognizing the will of the majority, protects the rights of the minority.
What, then, do we owe one another as citizens? At the very least, we cannot decide that some people should be forever barred from possessing the rights and benefits of others, if the voters, through their elected representatives, want benefits and rights to be shared. Federal and state laws now grant over 1,100 rights and benefits to married couples and their families but deny them to unmarried couples. However long they live together, however deep their commitment to one another, by law unmarried couples may not possess the right to joint ownership and transfer of property; the right to participate in pension and social security benefits, health insurance programs, health care decisions, and hospital visitation, among others.
These rights are bedrock. But the proposed amendment would forever deny them to unmarried couples because — and only because — some declare their love to be objectionable.
Current and future legislators, the people’s representatives, would be powerless to assist, however urgent the need, however appropriate the assistance. The Constitution itself would have to be amended, yet again.
Charity, compassion, benevolence, a commitment to equal respect and dignity help determine the quality of life in a country. But the animating principle of the United States is that the rights of the citizens cannot be dependent merely on charity or good will.
Our state, like every other, needs to become more just, not less. Enshrining discrimination into our State’s Constitution runs contrary to that goal.
The JCRC is also dedicated to the separation of church and state. We affirm the right of faith communities to prescribe their own standards for recognizing religious marriage, for it is religious ceremony, not civil law, that sanctifies marriage. Our Jewish community, like most faith communities, will not surrender to the government the power to determine what merits sanctification in our own tradition.
But SJR 13 would nullify a right that religious communities have held since the founding of this country. It would dictate to religious faiths what they can and cannot sanctify in their houses of worship. It would establish a precedent for the state to narrow the realm of religious liberty when it wishes – that is to say, whenever it is popular to do so. What if it become popular to prohibit those of differing faiths to marry, much as it was once popular to prevent those of different skin color to marry? Are those popular values that should be enshrined in a Constitution?
SJR 13 would embed the religious doctrine of some into our state Constitution, to the exclusion of others. It would undermine the principle of separation of church and state – the very principle that ensures religious liberty for people of all faiths and beliefs.
And, let there be no mistake, religious liberty is the principle to which we are committed. The JCRC deeply respects the sincere convictions of religious groups that believe that same-sex marriage is prohibited by passages found in their authoritative religious texts. We do not, however, believe that some religious groups have the right to use the government to impose their religious beliefs upon others. The Indiana Constitution includes numerous provisions that describe the relationship between the church and state, and Article I, Section 4 states it clearly:
No preference shall be given, by law, to any creed, religious society, or mode of worship... .
Ind. Const., Article I, § 4 (Freedom of Religion). The Equal Privileges and Immunities clause trumpets the same principle:
The General Assembly shall not grant to any citizen, or class of citizens, privileges or immunities, which, upon the same terms, shall not equally belong to all citizens.
Ind. Const., Article I, § 23. These constitutional provisions are bold and manifest: our legal rights shall not be dictated by religious beliefs; nor should civil laws restrict the free exercise of religion; and when our government provides benefits, it must do so to all on equal footing
We affirm the rule of law. For laws to work, they must be clear. Their working must be predictable. Their consequences must be measured. But the rhetoric surrounding this Amendment is feverish. Perhaps worse, it is cloudy and obscure. Not one legislator has offered a clear definition of “status identical or substantially similar to that of marriage”. The mere existence of so much contention over the meaning and effect of this Amendment is reason enough to stop. Let us all agree to this rule of civil society: before we amend our Constitution, we should understand, broadly and generally, the effects of our actions.
As a result of our commitment to our core values, the Indianapolis JCRC:
1) opposes any constitutional amendment that constricts rather than enhances rights; and we therefore oppose SJR 13; and
2) opposes any effort that would diminish the authority of clergy to practice their own religious requirements regarding marriage.
To those of you who will vote against this proposed amendment, I offer our gratitude.
To those who have no doubts about the merits of the amendment, I say to you: you have a duty to question the wisdom of amending the Constitution itself to impose the religious views of some who seek to restrict the civil rights of others. Laws can be passed, then repealed. Amendments to the Constitution can hardly ever be reversed, and never quickly.
To those who may have doubts and concerns about this amendment, I ask only this: be generous in spirit, defend the principle of religious liberty, and lead us where we know -- in our very best moments -- we ought to go.
[I noted that proponents of SJR 13 not only failed, but actually made no attempt at all, to explain what the “threat” to marriage was. I explained that none of the proponents had explained how their marriages or families would be harmed by same-sex marriage and I posited that they did not even attempt to explain this threat because they recognized that the perception of a threat was patently false.]
It is also worth noting that this Amendment will not create any new jobs in Indiana; it will not solve our State’s deficit; it will not be a cure to tax woes; it will not improve our schools or our roads; it will not reduce crime or find more homes for orphaned children. Given all of these issues, is an amendment to the Constitution solely for the purpose of restricting rights really the best thing for this General Assembly to focus upon?
I have come before you on behalf of the Indianapolis Jewish Community Relations Council. But I am not less an American for being a Jew. I ask you, I urge you: do not make government the agent of one religious doctrine. Many serve G-d. It is not for the State to decide that Protestant prevails over Catholic; that Christian prevails over Jew; that Jew prevails over Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, or any other faith.
I thank you for your time and consideration.
None of the senators asked me any questions. It is worth noting that several senators, in particular Sen. Greg Taylor (D-Indianapolis) and Sen. Tim Lanane (D-Madison County), asked numerous questions, both of proponents and opponents of SJR 13; moreover, it is also worth noting, as Sen. Taylor did in explaining his vote, that the Republican senators asked very few (if any) questions during the entire hearing.
The Democratic senators each gave brief speeches to explain their votes against SJR 13. The Republican senators simply voted “yes”. In the end, SJR 13 was approved by the committee by a vote of 6-4. All four Democrats voted against SJR 13; six of the seven Republicans voted in favor (one was not in the chambers when the vote was taken).
Finally, as long as I’m on the subject, I want to take a few moments to address (briefly; I plan to come back and address some of these points in much more detail at another time) some of the arguments made by proponents of SJR 13:
Those are the sorts of arguments being advanced by the opponents of same-sex marriage and the proponents of the constitutional amendment. One other point worth making: Not a single one of the people who testified in favor of SJR 13 offered any reason whatsoever as to why civil unions were bad, let alone why the General Assembly should be prohibited from adopting civil union legislation in the future should that be the will of voters expressed at the polls.
Please call your senator (and representative, for that matter) and tell them to oppose SJR 13. You don’t have to support same-sex marriage; but please tell our legislators not to amend Indiana’s Constitutions to restrict, rather than enhance, the rights of Hoosiers.