News that a “marriage equality” measure was headed toward passage Friday night was greeted by cheers and shouts among members of the New York State Bar Association House of Delegates attending the organization’s summer meeting in Cooperstown.
After a week of nail-biting negotiations and appeals to conscience, the Senate voted, 33-29, to give final approval to a bill, A-08354, that recognizes gay marriage in New York. The proposal passed with the support of every Democrat but one and four Republicans. Govenor Andrew M. Cuomo immediately signed a measure that he had made one of his top priorities.
“This is great news for all New Yorkers,” Stephen Younger, the immediate past president of the state bar, said in an interview after the vote was announced.
It was only two years ago that the state bar’s policymaking body, also in Cooperstown, voted to endorse state recognition of same-sex marriage.
Mr. Younger said that “it has taken time for the culture and politics to evolve” so that gay marriage could be accepted.
But he said that the organized bar had been instrumental in speeding that evolution.
He said that the issue “really galvanized” lawyers from around the state.
Mr. Younger said that the bar was able to “reshape the debate” to demonstrate that the issue was a legal as well as a moral one, showing that gay New Yorkers were being denied equal rights by hundreds of statutes. At the same time, he said that the treatment of same-sex rights were being litigated in New York’s courts.
The “patchwork quilt” of rights that had developed was not effective or fair, he said.
Mr. Younger said that the state bar’s counsel had crafted a well-received memorandum for the governor that showed that a balance could be struck between guaranteeing the rights of gays and protecting the right of all New Yorkers to religious freedom. That approach was instrumental in persuading enough Republicans to back the bill to achieve passage.
But Mr. Younger said that the “local touch” also was important. He said that Buffalo attorney Vincent Doyle, the current president of the state bar, and Susan Laluk, the outgoing president of the Monroe County Bar had visited Republican James Alesi, who announced his support for the bill last week. Also, Mr. Doyle had visted Republican Mark J. Grisanti, who remained undecided until the last minute but eventually backed the bill. Mr. Grisanti said during the debate that his background as an attorney was important in making his decision. He also cited “research” that showed that civil unions produced chaos rather than full equality, a position that mirrored a conclusion reached by the state bar two years ago.
Finally, Mr. Younger said that he had talked to Poughkeepsie Republican Stephen Saland, another undecided senator, who backed the measure this evening. Messrs. Grisanti and Saland provided the votes that finally put the measure over the top.
Mr. Younger said that the measure did not change the law that religious institutions that opted to serve the public could not discriminate – except in one regard. It declared that churches that refused to open their facilities to gay marriages could not be sued.
Mr. Doyle, the state bar president, said in a statement, “[f]or the State Bar Association, it came down to a legal issue – the disparate treatment of a group of people because of who they are. When the issue was debated within our committees and House of Delegates, there was an overwhelming consensus that this discrimination was wrong and that as lawyers, we should advocate its end. Passing this legislation was a top legislative priority for the State Bar Association, because it concerns fairness and equity under the law and it is sound public policy. Permitting marriage would relieve the tens of thousands of same-sex couples in our state and their children from the legal limbo that now surrounds them. I believe that the Association will look back at our advocacy as a shining moment in our history.”
Samuel W. Seymour, president of the New York City Bar Association, said in a statement, “same sex couples will now have the legal status that all married couples enjoy and that is clearly recognized by institutions, governments, employers and children, and which inseparably carries with it enumerable rights, duties, benefits, and obligations under the law. As lawyers practicing in trusts and estates, health care and family law, we look forward to seeing the end of the discrimination faced by our clients who are same-sex couples. The City Bar commends the steadfast advocacy of all those who have contributed to this achievement.”
Meanwhile, according to a statement from Mr. Cuomo announcing passage of the law, the Marriage Equality Act amends the Domestic Relations Law to state:
• A marriage that is otherwise valid shall be valid regardless of whether the parties to the marriage are of the same or different sex
• No government treatment or legal status, effect, right, benefit, privilege, protection or responsibility relating to marriage shall differ based on the parties to the marriage being the same sex or a different sex
• All relevant gender-specific language set forth in or referenced by New York law shall be construed in a gender-neutral manner
• No application for a marriage license shall be denied on · the ground that the parties are of the same or a different sex
The governor’s statement continues, “[t]he Marriage Equality Act was amended to include protections for religious organizations. The Act states that no religious entity, benevolent organization or not-for-profit corporation that is operated, supervised or controlled by a religious entity, or their employees can be required to perform marriage ceremonies or provide their facilities for marriage ceremonies, consistent with their religious principles. In addition, religious entities will not be subject to any legal action for refusing marriage ceremonies. The Act will grant equal access to the government-created legal institution of civil marriage while leaving the religious institution of marriage to its own separate and fully autonomous sphere. Additionally, the Act was amended to include a clause that states that if any part is deemed invalid through the judicial process and after all appeals in the courts, the entire Act would be considered invalid.”
Among other measures passed by the Legislature and endorsed by the governor:
• A cap on increases to property taxes of 2 percent or the rate of inflation, whichever is higher
• Strengthening rent regulation by, among other changes, raising the deregulation rent threshold from $2,000 to $2,500 and the income threshold from $175,000 to $200,000
• Allowing a hike on tuition at SUNY/CUNY campuses of $300 per year for five years..