This will go up on 365gay.com soon, but since I don’t know when, I want to get this posted ASAP:
[Update: it's now up. Here is the link.]
Marriage equality is coming to New York! The bill was signed within about an hour of its passage through the legislature, and marriage licenses will start issuing in thirty days.
It’s hard to write a column when all you want to do is scream and dance. I’m in Pennsylvania, not New York, but I grew up there and am still enough of a NY snob and realist to know that this is a very.big.deal.
Only the more populous California rivals New York in legal and symbolic importance. The state’s financial and cultural clout are exported around the world. Now this news about marriage will be, too, and I expect other states and nations to use this development as powerful ammunition for their own marriage equality movements. Our opponents – especially the National Organization for Marriage – know this, too.
When they’re being honest with themselves, they also know that their tactics at best delay the inevitable. That defensive game just got a lot tougher, especially since it was Republicans that made the difference in the state senate: Senator Skelos, the majority leader, allowed the measure to come to a vote; and in the end four Republicans put the measure over the top.
Consider the two whose votes were declared only last night: Mark Grisanti, who represents the Buffalo-Niagara Falls area; and Steve Saland, from the beautiful Hudson Valley part of the state.
These are exactly the kind of measured, moderate voices that quietly voice the doom of the anti-equality effort. Saland has a reputation as a thoughtful (if dull) legislator, but he spoke with confidence and conviction about his vote, declaring that his emotional journey towards recognizing the dignity and equality of gay couples was now at its end. He knew, somehow, that his parents would be proud of him
It was Grisanti, though, who is going to have the Catholic-inflected NOM et al. scrambling for a new playbook. He’s a real Catholic (check out his bio to see how very Catholic he is), yet was, in the end, able to separate his religion from what he concluded the law must allow.
Both Saland and Grisanti, significantly, are lawyers. I know, I know – a law degree doesn’t confer infallibility. But when it comes to legal rights, any attorney should be able to articulate a reason to exclude a class of people from equality. And Grisanti said: “I cannot legally come up with an argument against same-sex marriage.”
Others have, though. It’s worth recalling that the New York Court of Appeals ruled in 2006 that the state could ban same-sex weddings, using some of the worst arguments you will ever see in a body of such stature. This win more than makes up for that serious misstep, and is more satisfying, in a way.
This brings me to the one part of the law about which I have serious reservations: the religious exemptions. I’m well aware that the bill wouldn’t have passed without them, so the question is: Was it worth it? Are the exemptions too strong? Are they justified? Or should we have waited for a better law, bearing in mind that this version of marriage equality is likely to be ferried from state to state, going forward?
On balance, I think the exemptions are tolerable – but just barely.
First, they’re not the broadest – and dumbest – exceptions that have been suggested by a small, seriously misguided, group of law professors. These folks lurch from state to state arguing that businesses should be able to refuse to cater, photograph, provide flowers for, or put up guests for same-sex weddings if their objection is based on religion
This has been, and will continue to be, a non-starter. Although ostensibly limited to transactions connected to the wedding, in fact the restriction is impossible to police and would result in the rollback of anti-discrimination protection in states that have worked so hard to get it.
But the exemptions that are in the bill remain troubling. They go beyond what the state law and the U.S. Constitution already require, which is that no religion is forced to solemnize any marriage that violates its tenets. Under the amendments – released, maddeningly, just hours before the vote – neither these religious organizations, nor any non-profit organizations they control, nor any other “benevolent association” (think Knights of Columbus) has to have anything at all to do with a same-sex wedding.
As a pointed example, the measure would foreclose a suit such as the one filed by a New Jersey couple denied use of a beach pavilion by the Methodist church that owned it. The facility was routinely rented out for all kinds of weddings, so one might think that the decision to enter the world of commerce means you have to take all comers.
Yes in New Jersey — but not in New York. A church, synagogue, or mosque, can spin off as many organizations as it wishes, and engage in whatever businesses it wishes, without having to get involved in anything to do with our weddings. They can’t be sued for their actions, and they can’t lose their tax-exempt status because of them. I prefer the New Jersey approach, which strips away the religious fig leaf from naked acts of commerce.
There are also provisions in the law designed to reassure religious organizations that marriage equality can’t be used as a sword to get them to provide housing, employment, or services to the LGBT community where doing so would be inconsistent with their basic message. But those protections are already in state law, so the law isn’t as troubling there. Or at least it’s not newly troubling.
One thing that the law seems to leave out is an exemption for adoption agencies affiliated with religious organizations (like Catholic Charities) that will not place kids in households headed by same-sex couples. This is a vexing question that deserves its own post (coming soon!).
Let me close by panning back out, away from the details of the law to the broader commitment to dignity and equality that it embodies. Openly gay and HIV+ Senator Tom Duane ran well past his allotted time to provide a brief history of the progress of our movement, culminating in this huge victory. Then he said: “Nothing is going to change about how we love or take care of each other.” It is just that the state is now going to recognize and support us in these efforts.
And it is about time.