Gov. moves to recognize gay marriage

Says out-of-state gay marriage will be recognized in NY
May 29, 2008 9:53:58 AM PDT
New York gay couples willing to catch a flight and say their vows in Canada will soon be able to return home with many of the same rights and responsibilities as their straight married neighbors. Following a memo sent to state agencies by the counsel to Gov. David Paterson, New York state will recognize gay marriages performed in other states and countries where the unions are legal, according to the governor's office.

The directive orders state agencies, including those governing insurance and health care, to immediately recognize same-sex marriages legally performed elsewhere as valid in New York.

"It's a directive to state agencies in terms of how they set regulations and policies that affect anyone in their jurisdiction," Paterson spokesman Errol Cockfield said Thursday. "It has to do with how state agencies interact with the public at large in the state."

For years, gay rights advocates have sought recognition for gay marriages so couples could share family health care plans, receive tax breaks by filing jointly, enjoy stronger adoption rights and inherit property.

State Senate Republican Majority Leader Joseph Bruno said Thursday lawmakers have already enabled domestic partners to do things like participate in insurance and he wasn't sure of the memo's ramifications.

Bruno was surprised to learn now about the May 14 memo, saying the Democrat Paterson - with whom he has a cordial relationship - should have communicated with him. He said they'll discuss it later and added that there is a constitutional question of separation of powers between the governor, lawmakers and the courts.

"You have to understand that the court, the highest court here in New York state, made it very very clear that the only union that is legal in New York state, to perform a marriage ceremony, is between a man and a woman," Bruno said, citing a 4-2 Court or Appeals ruling in 2006. The Republican conference has been opposed to legalizing gay marriage, which would require changing the state Constitution, he said.

Many or all of these rights would now appear to be available to New Yorkers who legally wed same-sex partners out of state, according to the memo. Agencies have until June 30 to report back to the governor's counsel on how, specifically, the directive will change existing state benefits and services for gay couples.

The memo noted a Feb. 1 Appellate Division court ruling that same-sex marriages performed in other jurisdictions are "entitled to recognition in New York in the absence of express legislation to the contrary." The Court of Appeals has yet to rule in the case, having sent it back recently because the lower court proceedings were incomplete without a calculation of damages.

Massachusetts is currently the only U.S. state that recognizes same-sex marriage, but its residency requirements would bar New Yorkers from marrying there.

New York residents could instead flock to California, where gay couples will be able to wed beginning June 17 - unless that state's Supreme Court decides to stay its own ruling. Upon their return home, in the eyes of the state, their unions would be no different from those of their heterosexual neighbors.

Gay couples could also travel outside the country to marry in Canada or one of the other nations where gay marriage is legal.

In the February case, involving a woman wed in Canada who was denied benefits by her partner's employer, the appellate judges determined that there is no legal impediment in New York to the recognition of a same-sex marriage. The state Legislature "may decide to prohibit the recognition of same-sex marriages solemnized abroad," the ruling said. "Until it does so, however, such marriages are entitled to recognition in New York."

In a video shown at the Empire State Pride Agenda's spring dinner on Saturday, the governor said he directed the state agency measures as "a strong step toward marriage equality right here in our state."

"We're aware that our advocacy is incomplete and we will keep trying until people who love each other and want to get married, regardless of who they are, have that opportunity," Paterson said in the video, which was posted on the organization's Web site.

Paterson spokeswoman Erin Duggan said the May 14 memo is intended to guide the actions of state agencies. The memo states that agencies must change policies and regulations to make sure "spouse," "husband" and "wife" are clearly understood to include gay couples.

The memo states that failure to include gay marriages in the dispensing of state services such as health care benefits could violate state human rights law. The agencies could face sanctions for any violations, it warns.

The agency changes can be instituted through internal memos or changes in regulations and would not require legislative action, Paterson counsel David Nocenti said in the memo, which was first reported by The New York Times.

"This is a milestone in the fight for fairness in New York," New York Civil Liberties Union executive director Donna Lieberman said in a statement. "Couples in New York who have never known true security for their families will be officially entitled to treatment by our state government that respects their rights."

State Conservative Party Chairman Michael Long said Paterson should not declare that gay marriage must be recognized unless the Legislature changes the law. "The California judges overturned the will of the California people and Governor Paterson is apparently trying to do the same thing in New York," he said.

Former Gov. Eliot Spitzer and Paterson, Spitzer's running mate for lieutenant governor, campaigned in 2006 on a platform that included bringing equal rights to gays, including equal access to state services entitled to married couples. Spitzer, however, said the state constitution didn't sanction gay marriage and that although he supported legalizing same-sex marriage, other priorities such as the economy were more pressing.

In 2007, a bill to legalize same-sex marriage in New York was sponsored by Sen. Daniel O'Donnell of Manhattan, the openly gay brother of entertainer Rosie O'Donnell. The bill was approved 85-61 by the Democrat-led Assembly after an emotional three-hour debate.

The Republican-led Senate, however, hasn't taken the up the bill. A vote in the Senate is considered even less likely this year, a legislative election year in which the Republicans are hoping to cling to its majority by appealing in part to its more conservative base.