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It is hard to imagine a hotter hot-potato issue than same-sex marriage, and the New York State Bar Association on Friday opted to sidestep rather than immediately confront the topic. The House of Delegates, after behind-the-scenes negotiating and maneuvering last week, declined to take any position on either same-sex marriages or civil unions. Rather, it will postpone until November further discussion on a compromise proposal that would urge the Legislature to clearly define the legal rights and responsibilities of same-sex couples. The issue was essentially foisted upon the State Bar by the Association of the Bar of the City of New York, which initially called for state legislation that would provide same-sex couples with the same marital rights as heterosexual couples. When it was apparent that the State Bar was not ready to endorse same-sex marriage, the City Bar suggested a resolution supporting a civil union statute similar to the one enacted in Vermont. It was clear from the start that some members of the State Bar, a diverse and somewhat eclectic association of 70,000 lawyers hailing from Astoria to Athol Springs, were uncomfortable with the City Bar’s position and reluctant to take a stance on a social issue when the legal ramifications are less than certain. “I believe it is disgraceful for this Association to dignify the concept of a homosexual relationship with a marriage or with terms … to which each of you who vote on this proposal can relate to,” John Michael Mowry of Mowry & Mowry in Mexico, N.Y,. wrote in a recent letter to the House of Delegates. “If this proposal or anything promoting lesbian and gay relationships is approved by you now, or at any time in the future, I shall resign my membership and will actively campaign against this matter.” On the other hand, there were plenty of members who said they supported the measure either because they believe it is the right thing to do, or they believe some recognition of same-sex unions is inevitable, and the organization may as well take a position. Jay Weiser of the City Bar on Friday urged the state organization to provide national leadership on a cutting-edge issue. Weiser said the law has failed to keep up with societal changes, and he pointed to problems such as asset distribution, health care, child custody and other matters that are increasingly confronting people involved or formerly involved in a same-sex union. He stressed that the City Bar’s proposal should not be viewed as an attack on marriage. “By tying civil union law into marriage law, the state would create a legal framework to resolve a lot of the issues,” Weiser said. “When insurance, equitable distribution, custody, visitation and survivor issues come up, courts can look to marriage law and most of the time will find a clear solution. So civil union would increase social stability and decrease dependency on government by binding same-sex couples.” Weiser acknowledged the issue is complex and controversial, but said that is no reason for the State Bar to avoid it. “I can certainly understand why emotions run high on this issue,” he said. “But there are always going to be high emotions as new groups come under society’s big tent. Lawyers who didn’t want to take a stand on segregation because it was too controversial … are not fondly remembered. I would argue that this association has to look past controversy, acknowledge the emotions and also remember its obligation to improve the law, do the right thing and take a stand for equality.” But in the end, the House of Delegates essentially decided there was no reason to immediately take a position on a particularly divisive issue at a time when neither Congress nor the state Legislature is anywhere near ready to act.

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