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Marriage Equality Debate Reaches Boiling Point in New York State

by Kilian Melloy
Friday Jun 5, 2009
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Gay and lesbian families have long looked to New York to be the next state to honor their families by extending marriage equality. After Massachusetts became the first state to see same-sex couples marry five years ago, some speculated that New York would soon follow suit.

In the event, other states stepped up first: California (which later rescinded the right to marry through popular vote, via a ballot initiative), Connecticut (where voters declined a constitutional convention over the issue), Iowa, Vermont, Maine, and now New Hampshire.

New York lags behind, embroiled in politics. Though a bill for marriage equality has passed the state Assembly--for the second time in two years--the measure has yet to come up for a vote in the state Senate.

Even if it does, pundits believe its chances might be slim: no Republican state Senators have come out in favor of the bill, and some Democrats have said they are opposed to granting gay and lesbian families equal marriage rights, chief among them anti-gay lawmaker and evangelical cleric Ruben Diaz, Sr.

But the issue has been kept in play in the state Senate, in part by claims from openly gay state Senator Thomas K. Duane that he has been assured by enough fellow lawmakers that they will vote in favor of the bill that it will pass.

For Diaz, Duane’s claims require proof. As noted by various media sources, including a June 3 article at AuburnPub.com and an article posted the same day at Daily Intel.com, Diaz has issued the demand that Duane provide names--or else "shut up."

Diaz characterized Duane’s claims as a matter of "mind games," Daily Intel reported, noting that while a total of 28 state Senators have stated they would vote against the measure (including six Democrats), five won’t say one way or the other and another nine evidently cannot say because they have yet to determine how they would vote.

That means that marriage equality needs to secure a dozen votes from the fourteen lawmakers who have not indicated which way they’d vote on the measure, Daily Intel noted, going on to quote Diaz as saying, "Any Senator who commits himself or herself to something, should be man or woman enough to take a stand and stand by his or her convictions."

The evangelical Senator went on to say, "If they give their word to support something that they are ashamed of, then that is a hypocrisy, and could be interpreted as not wanting to be associated with the matter."

Posits the Daily Intel article, "This is certainly true--but Diaz has been in Albany for nearly seven years, and this posturing belies what he knows about the system up there."

One of a couple of reasons lawmakers might be shy about stating their intentions when it comes to such a vote, the Daily Intel article said, is that, "as Rochester-area Republican Jim Alesi points out, coming out in favor of the bill will just make Democratic Majority Leader Malcolm Smith’s job easier--something no member of the newly minority GOP in the Senate wants to do."

The article cited a quote from Alesi, who reportedly said, "Since we haven’t been receiving the kind of help that I think that we should be afforded as members of the Senate from this new majority, I’m not in any way shape or form wanting to make it easy for him to decide whether he’s gonna bring that bill to the floor or not."

Observed the article, "Whether in the end he’ll vote with his conscience to aid gay couples is a different story--at least in the logic of Albany."

The article went on to tut Diaz for "childish pre-vote vote counting," pointing out that "Diaz himself made Malcolm Smith promise he wouldn’t put the bill to the floor unless he had the votes.

"He held his and his fellow renegade Democrats’ participation in the party caucus for ransom over the issue.

"Therefore, it seems obvious that the responsibility for vote counting should fall on Diaz’s shoulders, not the shoulders of marriage-equality proponents. He’s the one who took the fight off the floor, where it belongs, in the first place."

The Washington Times took note of the legislative uncertainty in New York in a June 4 article, noting that if the state Senate simply does nothing, the deadline for a vote on the measure will expire along with the current legislative session on June 22.

As the Washington Times noted, passionate oratory from openly gay state Assemblyman Danny O’Donnell, whose sister is the openly lesbian entertainer Rosie O’Donnell, helped to persuade the Assembly to vote for the measure a second time in two years, despite heated rhetoric that included a slam against the view that marriage equality is a civil rights issue.

State Sen. Diaz cited a poll taken after an anti-marriage demonstration that Diaz led outside Gov. Paterson’s Manhattan office that indicated support for family parity was weakening. That poll shows pro- and anti-marriage camps in a deadlock, with 46% of those surveyed weighing in on both sides of the issue, the Washington Times reported.

Said Diaz, "Before that demonstration, it was 53 percent in favor of gay marriage."

Added the cleric, "What I’m telling you is the demonstration, the education we have been giving to the community is already achieving some positive note and the percentage is coming down."

But the pro-marriage side is also reaching out. The Washington Post article cited Freedom to Marry executive director Evan Wolfson, who noted that marriage supporters are making their voices heard through a push to contact their senators.

Said Wolfson, "New York is certainly a battleground.

"The real question is whether the senators will crunch down and follow the will of the people of New York and pass it."

Wolfson cited numerous polls other than the one Sen. Diaz said showed marriage equality now had fewer supporters. According to Wolfson, support for marriage parity in New York remains strong.

Wolfson noted that the state’s neighbors had largely led the way, as New York fell behind. "Almost every state New York touches has moved ahead of New York in protecting families and approving marriage equality.

"I’m very hopeful that if we do our work, tell our stories, the Senate will do the right thing."

Even as politicians roil around the issue, religious leaders are attempting to undermine marriage equality in the state, with New York’s seven Bishops protesting the granting of equality before the law for gay and lesbian families.

A June 4 article carried at the Catholic News Agency Web site reported on the issue, placing quotation marks around the word marriage whenever it appeared in the context of gay and lesbian couples.

Even though six states currently honor family equality, the bishops declared that for New York to follow suit would be a "drastic measure" in a June 1 statement on the issue, reported CAN.

The New York bishops, led by Archbishop Timothy Dolan, said in their statement that, "We face today the prospect of a law in New York which would radically change the timeless institution of marriage.

"As pastors of citizens from every corner of our great state, we stand unified in our strong opposition to such a drastic measure."

The statement reiterated the church’s teaching that marriage should be "the union of a man and a woman in an enduring bond, ordered for the procreation and stable rearing of children."

The statement did not appear to address the issue of couples in which at least one partner is sterile, or of couples past their child-bearing years.

However, the statement attempted to cast opposition to legal parity for gay and lesbian families as wider in scope than objections based in religion, asserting that denial of marriage equality "is based on reason, sound public policy, and plain common sense."

Moreover, the bishops made the argument that, "the state has a compelling legal interest in promoting marriage between men and women in order to create stable families and provide for the safety, health and well being of children," though they stopped short of saying that heterosexual divorce should be illegal.

Dismissing the needs of committed couples of the same gender, the bishops declared that, "the state has no such compelling legal interest in recognizing a relationship between two people of the same sex."

The bishops added that their "firm beliefs about marriage ... must not be misconstrued to be in any way a condemnation of homosexual people or an attack on their human dignity," CNS reported.

A June 4 report from americanprogress.org was issued three days after the New York bishops’ statement.

The report examined the role of religion in the success of the 2004 Michigan ballot initiative that not only barred marriage equality, but denied same-sex couples basic rights such as health insurance.

The report found that the anti-marriage side raised more money than pro-marriage advocates, but just crucially, the anti-marriage side couched their argument in religion, whereas the pro-marriage side relied on non-religious arguments such as civil rights and equality before the law.

Noting that many people of faith consider marriage equality a matter of fairness and civil rights, the report found that several components are key to any successful countering of attempts through ballot initiative to roadblock or rescind family parity rights, including alliances between people of faith, no matter their religious background, and civil rights advocates of all stripes, including GLBT equality advocates.

Moreover, the report found that it is crucial for GLBT equality advocates to seek to correct false and misleading claims from anti-gay groups, such as were used in the successful campaign in California last year to rescind existing marriage rights from minority families.

To date, the only anti-gay constitutional amendment initiative that has been defeated by voters took place in Arizona, when opponents of the broadly-worded measure worried that it would deprive unmarried heterosexual couples of domestic partnership benefits.

However, when the amendment’s language was fine-tuned to affect only gay and lesbian families two years later, voters handily passed the initiative.

The total number of states now barring marriage equality through ballot initiative-approved constitutional amendments now stands at thirty.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network’s Assistant Arts Editor, writing about film, theater, food and drink, and travel, as well as contributing a column. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association’s Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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