After final hearing on contractor bill, Council speaker signs on, mayor continues to stonewall
A stark contrast is shaping up on LGBT rights between at least two of the men running for mayor of New York in 2005.
Republican Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg will not say if he supports same-sex marriage, will not perform them now, won’t recognize same-sex marriages performed in San Francisco despite a city law to the contrary, and continued to oppose the Equal Benefits Bill in the City Council that will require contractors to provide benefits to domestic partners of their employees if they extend spousal benefits.
Speaker Gifford Miller (D-East Side), a longtime supporter of same-sex marriage, called on the mayor Sunday to order the City Clerk to start issuing licenses to gay couples, and announced Monday that despite his usual policy of not co-sponsoring Council legislation, he will add his name to the 38 councilmembers sponsoring the Equal Benefits Bill, Intro 271, introduced by Councilmember Christine Quinn, the out lesbian Chelsea Democrat.
The bill, also known as the Thrope-Ghossein Bill for a lesbian couple that could not get domestic partner benefits from a city contractor, accelerating Dominique Ghossein’s death, had its second and final hearing in the Contracts Committee on February 27. No one spoke against it, despite anticipated opposition from religious contractors who disapprove of homosexuality. The Bloomberg administration refused to send a representative to defend testimony its representatives delivered in November charging that the bill is illegal.
The Mayor’s Law Department refuses to comment on its legal arguments against the bill, leading to speculation that Bloomberg plans a veto and a lawsuit if the Council overrides him, as they most likely will be given a veto-proof majority of 39 sponsors including Miller.
The bill is now expected to be voted out of committee on April 16 and passed at the stated Council meeting after that.
Committee Chair Robert Jackson (D-Washington Heights), a strong supporter of the legislation, carefully laid out the purpose of the bill in legal language designed to counter the Mayor’s opposition.
“This bill is important for purely economic reasons for the city,” Jackson said. “Better compensated employees produce better goods and services. The City, as a market participant, is requiring parity” in the way employees with domestic partners are treated.
The hearing came amidst a flurry of activity around the same-sex marriage issue nationally and in New York. “We as a Council cannot pass a law saying you can get married,” Quinn, an out lesbian, said, “so it is critical that we do everything we can to equalize relationships in the five boroughs.” She pledged that the Council would override a Bloomberg veto and called his opposition “sad.”
Out Council Member Margarita Lopez chided the 13 members of the Council (at that time including Miller) who had not signed onto the bill.
“You are either with us or against us,” she said of her colleagues who are hesitating on this issue.
State Comptroller Alan Hevesi, a longtime supporter of same-sex marriage, sent testimony to the hearing as has City Comptroller Bill Thompson in the past.
“Intro 271 is neither ground-breaking not uncommon,” Hevesi’s statement said. “Ten states, 130 cities and counties, and 198 colleges and universities have adopted a system of inclusive benefits,” as well as “7,000 corporations.”
Hevesi noted that extension of such benefits does not increase costs.
“True equality will only come when unmarried employees with partners and families are able to enjoy all the benefits accorded to married employees, and are required to produce the same amount of benefits.” Hevesi supports also supports a contractors bill at the state level.
Erich Ochsner, who got his employer Met Life to extend domestic partner benefits several years ago, noted that it saved the life of the partner of a straight colleague who needed an emergency appendectomy.
Dwight Loines, of the United Auto Workers, noted that some members of his union, such as employees at the Village Voice, have had domestic partner benefits for decades.
The Rt. Rev. Catherine Roskam, Suffragan Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, showed up to testify despite having been up half the night dealing with a pastoral counseling situation.
“But as tired as I am physically, I am more tired of bigotry masquerading as religion. I am sick and tired of the religious right’s and the political right’s discriminatory practices hiding behind the salvific cross of Jesus Christ.”
Her diocese has provided domestic partner benefits for several years and they support Intro 271. Looking up at his portrait in the Council Chamber, she quoted George Washington, an Episcopalian, who said, “This land is no more a Christian country than it is Hebrew or Mohammedan.”
Roskam added, “That is the George W. we need to listen to.”
The committee also heard from Rabbi Valerie Leiber of Temple Israel in Jamaica, Queens in support of 271.
Jeff Stone, of Dignity/New York, the LGBT Catholic group, urged the Council not to go along with a religious exemption to the bill that was requested of Quinn by Catholic Charities.
“Many of our members work for the Catholic Church,” he said. “To exempt the church would deny them benefits.”
He noted that the Archdiocese of San Francisco complied with the contractors’ bill there by allowing benefits to go to “any one person they designated in their household.”
Quinn later said she was open to that kind of compromise if necessary, but not a blanket religious exemption.
At a press conference after the hearing, Quinn said, “If Mayor Bloomberg stands by his position to veto, he will be standing with people who do not support domestic partners and gay and lesbian equality and standing with the President.”
Council Member Yvette Clarke (D-Brooklyn) said, “We have the opportunity to level the playing field and to recognize each and every family arrangement with the same level of social standing.”
Alan Van Capelle, executive director of the Empire State Pride Agenda, said Bloomberg has not made himself available to talk about his opposition for months. Van Capelle chastised the mayor for not offering his own remedy to inequality if he thinks this bill is illegal.
During the mayoral campaign in 2001, Bloomberg told a group of gay journalists that he supported the legislation.