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New York Judge Throws Out First Direct Legal Challenge To Gay Marriage Recognitiion

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NEW YORK — A judge has thrown out the first direct legal challenge to the New York governor's move to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states, calling the policy a legally allowable stand for fairness.

A decision by gay couples to wed represents "a personal expression of emotional devotion, support and interdependence and a public commitment," state Supreme Court Judge Lucy Billings wrote in a decision issued Tuesday. "With that validity, they expect equal treatment with other married couples."

Thousands of gay New Yorkers over the next few years are expected to make use of Massachusetts' recent decision to let out-of-state gay couples marry there. The Christian legal organization that brought the New York case said it would appeal, while gay-rights and civil-liberties groups hailed the ruling as strengthening legal support for same-sex couples.

In a statement, Gov. David Paterson called it "a wise and fair determination."

Same-sex couples cannot marry in New York, and the state's highest court has said only the Legislature has the authority to change that. But Paterson's counsel told state agencies in May that a recent state appellate court ruling required them to recognize gay marriages legally performed elsewhere or risk discrimination claims.

The directive prompted a lawsuit from the Alliance Defense Fund, an Arizona-based group that has repeatedly challenged attempts to extend spousal rights to gay couples in New York. Several Republican state senators had signed onto the latest suit.

The alliance is involved in cases around the country that concern gay marriage, abortion, school prayer and other social issues. It already had several ongoing cases over attempts to extend spousal rights to gay couples in New York.

Attorneys for the alliance have said it opposes gay marriage in general, but the group's case against Paterson focused on what it saw as overstepping his constitutional authority.

The alliance argued that recognizing out-of-state gay marriages was up to the Legislature, not the governor, and that legislators hadn't moved toward such recognition.

The Democratic governor's lawyers noted that lawmakers hadn't expressly barred it, either, despite several proposals.

The judge agreed, calling the policy a "permissible, if not mandated, step toward the objective of equality for a group for whom legal as well as practical barriers to equality persist." She also said refusing to respect a same-sex marriage conducted elsewhere is "antithetical to family stability."

Alliance Defense Fund lawyer Jim Campbell said the judge's decision made New York subject to other states' choices on same-sex marriage. He challenged her holding that New York's Legislature had "conspicuously" declined to act on honoring out-of-state gay weddings.

"If you define marriage for yourself and something from somewhere else conflicts with your definition of marriage, it's redundant and unnecessary to declare that you're not going to recognize that out-of-state (policy)," he said.

Lambda Legal, a gay rights group that entered the case on behalf of two female state employees who married in Canada, said the judge's decision amplified "a steady drumbeat of courts recognizing long-standing New York law as it applies to same-sex couples."

The governor's office said Tuesday that it is unaware of any other pending legal challenges. The policy has already been implemented.

Massachusetts and California are the only states that allow gay marriages. Out-of-state gay couples were unable to marry in Massachusetts until the July 31 repeal of a nearly century-old ban on any marriage that would be illegal in a couple's home state.

Some other states let same-sex couples enter into civil unions offering some of marriage's legal advantages.

In New York, marriage is accompanied by more than 1,300 rights and duties, according to a tally by the gay-rights group Empire State Pride Agenda. The rights are as broad as protections against having to testify against a spouse and as specific as public housing priority for veterans' widows.

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