Reform Jewish Voice of New York State

October 22, 2014 · 28 Tishrei


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Marriage Equality 2009

Marriage Equality for Same-Sex Couples

1. Background

One man and one woman who get married automatically receive more than 1,100 legal protections, benefits and responsibilities from the federal government and more than 1,300 from New York State while same-sex couples in committed relationships are systemically denied access to fundamental family and financial protections such as medical decision-making authority, inheritance rights, tax rights (especially regarding the transfer of property), the right to make end-of-life decisions, the ability to adopt children as a couple, and the presumption of parenthood.   Recognition by the State of New York of the right of same-sex couples to marry would also greatly improve the lives of these couples.

It is important to note that recognition of civil marriage equality would have no effect on religious marriage. Any clergy member who objects to marrying same-sex couples could continue to refuse to officiate at a wedding.  Legalization would, however, allow couples to enter into a legal civil marriage and provide access to the thousands of federal and state rights and responsibilities given to heterosexual married couples today.

Modern American history has seen dramatic changes in rights to marry.  Prior to 1967, many states banned interracial marriage.  However, with the passage of the 1996 federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which restricted access to federal benefits to marriages between one man and one woman, the road toward equality has been blocked by regressive and homophobic social policy. Since that time, forty-five states have passed state constitutional amendments or state-level DOMAs that define marriage for state purposes to exclude same-sex couples.  New York is one of only five states (along with the District of Columbia) without such a law explicitly barring state recognition of marriages of same-sex couples.

2. Status and Legislative Summary

In July 2006, New York’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, found that New York’s Constitution did not require that marriage be made available to same-sex couples. The court said it was up to the New York State legislature to pass a law allowing same-sex couples to marry.

In the 2007 legislative session, the New York State Assembly passed Governor Spitzer’s Marriage Equality Bill by a vote of 85 to 61. The New York State Senate did not bring the bill to the floor before the end of the legislative session.

In New York's legislature, both a "Marriage Equality" Act (allowing same-sex couples access to state-level marriage rights) and a New York Defense of Marriage Act have been proposed and debated. A/8590 and S.5884 have been introduced in the legislature. A/8590 was passed by the Assembly in 2007 and referred to the Senate where it was not acted on. It was returned to the Assembly in January 2008. S5884 was referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee in January 2008.

It has not been determined whether state-level anti-marriage laws are constitutionally permissible in denying full faith and credit to another state’s marriages. Marriages of same-sex couples validly performed in other jurisdictions are accorded legal respect in New York State under longstanding principles of law. This has been confirmed by state appellate and trial courts (Martinez v. County of Monroe and Godfrey v. Spano), by state government and many local government entities, and by private sector employers.

In May 2008, Governor Paterson’s Counsel directed all state agencies to review their operations and ensure that their agencies extend respect to these marriages to the fullest extent permitted by law. This directive was upheld as lawful in September 2008 by a state trial court (Golden v. Paterson) and in January 2009 an appellate court upheld a state agency’s policy to extend health insurance benefits to same-sex spouses of married government employees (Lewis v. NYS Department of Civil Service). Additionally in 2008, access to Family Court orders of protection from domestic violence, formerly provided only for heterosexual married couples, was extended to same-sex couples as well as to those in an intimate dating relationship.

Empire State Pride Agenda released an update on how state agencies are now recognizing same-sex marriages. The update, written in conjunction with Lambda Legal, New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) and American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), includes:

  • The Department of Health will now list both mothers on birth certificates for children born to married lesbian couples.
  • The NYS Insurance Department has directed all insurance companies to provide coverage offered under state policies to same-sex married couples on the same terms as opposite-sex spouses.
  • The same-sex spouses of state and local government employees are entitled to the same employment benefits as opposite-sex married couples.
  • Workers’ Compensation benefits and compensation to spouses of crime victims will be extended to same-sex spouses.
  • Requirements for public employees to provide the NYS Commission on Public Integrity with ethics filings on their spouses also apply to same-sex spouses.

On April 22, 2009, 19 New York State Senators introduced the Marriage Equality Bill (S. 4401) to amend the domestic relations law to allow for same-sex marriages.  The bill had passed the Assembly for the third time and it was brought up for debate and a vote in the Senate late in year.  However on December 2, 2009, the New York State Senate voted 24-38 to defeat the bill, effectively killing the bill until the next session.  All 30 Republicans and eight Democrats voted against the bill, even though polling done around the time of vote found that a majority of New Yorkers supported the bill[1].

[1] | http://www.syracuse.com/news/index.ssf/2009/12/new_york_senate_votes_down_gay.html

3. Position of the Reform Jewish Movement

Based on our commitment to the values and principles of Judaism and the positions of our Reform Jewish Movement through the resolutions of the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, we affirm the belief that all people -– gay men, lesbians, straight men and women - are created in the image of God and that all people are equal recipients of God's love.  Heterosexual and homosexual persons are entitled equally to express their love and commitment through the institution of marriage and to enjoy the benefits of marriage. 

We are religious people and our community includes gay men and lesbian women.  We believe that all of us are children of the living God and that preference is an aspect of a person’s constitutional makeup.  We recognize that there are Biblical and Rabbinic texts that reflect the perceptions of a different time. And yet those texts stand side by side with other texts reminding us that we are all created b’tselem Elohim -in the image of God – and charging us to ‘love our neighbor as ourselves.’ The enduring values that underlie these precepts continue to inspire us.  We believe that God has created some people as heterosexuals and others as homosexuals.  This is not perversity, but human diversity.  We must stand up for the equal rights of all types of people and proclaim that there is room in our communities for all, regardless of sexual orientation.

The Reform Movement has consistently affirmed its commitment to welcoming gay and lesbian couples into congregations and, in 2005 the Union for Reform Judaism expanded that support with a resolution supporting full equality under the law, including civil rights for gay men, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender individuals.

Previously, in June 2004, the CCAR adopted a specific resolution regarding same-sex marriage with the following tenets:

A. Reaffirm our commitment to upholding the integrity of the United States Constitution, particularly concerning its guarantee of equal protection for all citizens, its prohibitions against discrimination and its safeguarding of religious liberties;

B. Reaffirm our commitment to pursuing full civil marriage rights for same-gender couples;

C. Oppose any proposal to amend the United States Constitution or any state constitutions, or any state legislation that would limit these rights, and

D. Call upon CCAR members to play a leadership role on the federal, state and local levels on this issue, and to join coalitions and other efforts in local communities.

RJV Co-Chair Rabbi Marc Gruber was recently cited in England's Jewish Chronicle speaking about RJV activism for marriage equality.

4. Talking Points

  • The right of marriage should be available to all New Yorkers.
  • Religious marriage and civil marriage are different:
    1.     Recognition of same-sex couples’ right to civil marriage will not affect religious marriage;
    2.     Each religious group is free to define religious marriage in its own way; and,
    3.     A clergyperson retains the right to refuse to officiate over same-sex marriages.
  • Married couples receive thousands of federal and state-level legal protections, benefits and responsibilities with a civil marriage.  Recognition by New York State of the right of same-sex couples to marry would provide access to rights such fundamental family and financial rights.
  • Reform Jewish Movement supports full equality for same-sex couples under the law, including legal recognition of these relationships.
  • We urge all state legislators to co-sponsor and vote in support of legislation that endorses marriage equality and to oppose legislation that limits the rights of same-sex couples.

5.  Related Links