Bill passed Assembly this week, appears just shy of votes needed to pass Senate
ALBANY, N.Y. — Opponents of a New York bill to legalize same-sex marriage say that while they’re having trouble getting their nuanced position heard, their concerns are reflected in splits among legislators and New Yorkers.
They also say the all-or-nothing effort to pass a marriage equality law is blocking a compromise to guarantee full rights for gay couples through civil unions.
The Assembly passed the bill Tuesday night, May 12, 89 to 52, which includes the backing of five Republicans. If passed by the Senate, New York would become the sixth state to legalize same-sex marriage.
But in this best chance yet for proponents to legalize same-sex marriage in New York, there are few rallies and little vitriol from either side.
"We want to make sure to keep this to a respectful dialogue, because we don’t question the motivation of people on the other side," said Dennis Poust of the New York State Catholic Conference. "We’re not going to resort to any kind of homophobia in making our arguments because that is against our teachings and is unjust."
Poust’s group, along with many legislators, says it supports providing every government right to same-sex couples. But they say redefining marriage — with all its cultural and religious aspects — isn’t necessary or even possible in any context other than in a political world.
Poust said a law could force Catholic colleges to provide housing for same-sex couples, require Catholic schools to provide spousal benefits to gay couples, and require justices of the peace to perform same-sex marriages despite their religious beliefs. Others cite examples of wedding photographers and other business operators who would be forced to shelve their religious convictions.
"The goal should have been a strong civil union bill with all the equality provisions … it’s unfortunate that in the state of New York you have to go to the absolute extreme," said Assemblyman Greg Ball, a Hudson Valley Republican and a Catholic.
The opponents aren’t alone.
In 2006, New York’s highest court ruled 4-2 that the state’s marriage law is constitutional. The ruling noted several "rational" reasons for the state to limit marriage to a union between a man and a woman, including child-rearing.
Even the Assembly, long dominated by liberal Democrats, was divided in 2007, when it last passed its version of a same-sex marriage bill 86-61. Back then, the chamber had a 108-42 Democratic majority. In the Senate today, where Democrats hold a 32-30 majority, the issue is at least a vote or two short of the 32 needed for approval.
Contrary to claims from both sides about their level of public support, independent polls show a divided New York. The most recent is a Siena College poll in April and is the one most noted by supporters of the marriage law. It found 53 percent of New Yorkers supported gay marriage, but the margin of error means it could have been an even split.
In New York, the strategy this year was to frame the issue as a civil right.
"It’s an issue of justice," Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver said Tuesday. "It’s an issue of civil rights. And I think it’s important that it gets done as quickly as it can get done."
The Empire State Pride Agenda explains that 1,324 rights and responsibilities are denied same-sex couples compared to married couples under state and federal law. They include difficulty in drawing up contracts, wills, trusts, powers of attorney, health care proxies and other legal documents.
In addition, civil unions in other states don’t guarantee all of the same benefits and rights as marriage, and aren’t universally recognized.
Still others believe the fight is about the ability of a powerful lobby and its champions in the Legislature to force societal changes despite the will and rights of the people.
"This is a loud and vocal group," said the Rev. Duane Motley, founder of New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms. "We think this is a real assault on religious freedom."
Associated Press Writer Valerie Bauman in Albany contributed to this report.