Push for Marriage Visibility

New York advocates press for activism as high court case nears

Clear your calendars! The battle for same-sex marriage in New York State is heating up fast, with predictions that the Court of Appeals could rule on the issue by this summer. Advocates are sounding the call for stepped-up activity by anyone concerned about marriage equality now, in order to create an atmosphere in the state that will be conducive to a favorable ruling.

Reverend Pat Bumgardner, pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church/ NY and a leader in this cause for more than a decade, said at an emergency meeting this week, “We need to find a way to get a bigger body of our community to know what is going on and to get involved.”

With leaders of Marriage Equality/ NY, Bumgardner’s congregation is forming a new grassroots coalition to work on the issue, reaching out to LGBT and mainstream groups and individuals to sign on and participate. For more information, go to marriageequalityny.org or call 877-772-0089.

A list of the group’s planned activities follows at the end of the story—from a Tax Day demonstration to a march across the Brooklyn Bridge in June.

The Empire State Pride Agenda has begun training “Marriage Ambassadors” to work in their local communities to build support for same-sex marriage and hopes to turn out hundreds of supporters for Equality and Justice Day to lobby state legislators in Albany on May 8, as well as arranging in-district lobby meetings around the state.

“We’re putting together work plans in local communities,” said Joe Tarver, spokesperson for the Pride Agenda. “We need help in finding people who want to do more.” For information on how to help, go to prideagenda.org or call 212-627-0305.

The legal advocacy groups are declaring themselves “undaunted” by two Appellate Division intermediate-level defeats for same-sex marriage, a 4-1 rejection of the New York City case brought by Lambda Legal and last week’s 5-0 KO of three cases heard in Albany, argued by the ACLU and other attorneys.

Susan Sommer, Lambda’s supervising attorney who argued the New York City case, said her group filed its brief with the Court of Appeals on February 7 and the city’s are due on March 24, after which Lambda has until April 10 to respond.

“We fully expect there to be oral arguments,” she said, though the high court has yet to schedule them.

With the Pride Agenda, Lambda is working on a Marriage Awareness Tour for Equality, sending speakers including some of the plaintiffs in these cases before all kinds of groups, including religious congregations. If you have an idea for a group they can speak to, Sommer said to contact Liz Accles, coordinator of outreach on marriage, at Lambda at 212-809-8585.

“It is important for people in the state to get to know gay couples and to demystify the issue,” Sommer said.

Out gay state Senator Tom Duane, a Chelsea Democrat, is in the Democratic minority, but plans to bring up his Equal Marriage Bill for a hearing again this spring.

Tarver said that the high court could grant gay couples the right to marry, deny the right, or “punt” and ask the Legislature, as was done in Vermont in late 1999, to work out a law that delivers full equality and could lead to either civil unions or marriage.

Duane said he had assurances from Democratic Speaker Sheldon Silver that the Assembly “absolutely” will not pass a Defense of Marriage Act banning same-sex marriage, even if the court rules for gay marriage. He has discussed the issue with Senate Republican Majority Leader Joe Bruno, “but he doesn’t comment one way or the other.” Duane is working to “educate my colleagues to make sure they understand that what we want is civil marriage, not civil unions or domestic partnerships.”

The Legislature took one more in a still-short series of incremental steps on gay partnerships last year by passing a bill giving gay men and lesbians control of their deceased partners’ remains, a law recently signed by Republican Governor George Pataki.

Mayor John Shields of Nyack, one of the plaintiffs in a fifth same-sex marriage case that has yet to be heard by the Appellate Division, is worried about the outcome of the statewide push.

“The judges want to push it on the Legislature, the Legislature on the court,” he said. “Everyone is scared to do the right thing.”

He is encouraged that Attorney General Elliot Spitzer, the leading Democratic candidate for governor, told him he would introduce and sign equal marriage legislation if elected.

Shields called on voters throughout the state to lobby their legislators. “I’m not sure we should support someone who doesn’t support same-sex marriage,” he said.

The New Jersey Supreme Court, which has in recent years made several significant pro-gay rulings, may decide within the month on a same-sex marriage case just argued by Lambda Legal. A victory there on top of the historic 2003 ruling of the Supreme Judicial Court in Massachusetts, another Empire State neighbor, could positively influence the New York court.

In a related development, the Suffolk County Legislature, once a bastion of conservatism, is taking up a bill on March 14 to create a countywide domestic partner registry for same-sex and opposite-sex couples. Six of the 13 towns on Long Island have such registries. The county grants domestic partner benefits to its unionized employees, 80 of whom have signed up for them since 2004.

Elsewhere in the country, a gay couple in Hendersonville, North Carolina, Charles Merrill and Kevin Boyle, have vowed not to pay their taxes this year to protest their inability to marry under the law. Marriage Equality/NY would love to hear from a couple in New York willing to take a similar pledge and announce it in conjunction with their Tax Day demonstration in April.

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