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Marriage Equality in New York: The Time Is Now

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I have recently written to Democratic Conference Leader John Sampson urging him to bring marriage equality legislation to the floor for a vote the next time the legislature is in session. I strongly support marriage equality as a basic civil rights issue. I know that there are a significant number of Senators who do not support the bill, but believe it is our duty as a legislative body to have a meaningful debate on marriage equality and give every Senator an opportunity to publicly vote his or her conscience on this critical issue.

Under current New York law, lesbian and gay couples are denied the basic protections provided to heterosexual couples. In such areas as property ownership, inheritance, health care, hospital visitation, taxation, insurance coverage, child custody, pension benefits and testimonial privileges, married couples have a host of important rights and protections. Denying gays and lesbians access to those benefits - as well as the many responsibilities which come with civil marriage - is a violation of the basic principle of equal protection.

Those who argue against marriage equality usually base their arguments either on 1) religious grounds or 2) on their belief that marriage should be reserved for relationships centered around procreation and child rearing. The first argument fails to recognize both the separation of church and state and the fact that many denominations do in fact already recognize same sex marriages. The second argument is just plain silly.

Legalizing same-sex marriage would not and could not force any religious officials to do anything - religious institutions already choose who can or cannot get married within their denominations for both same and opposite sex marriages and they would continue to do so. It would not require any change of religious teachings or actions. The only institution which would be required to recognize same-sex marriages would be the State.

Similarly, family- and procreation-based arguments fail to recognize how many same-sex couples are in fact raising children, as well as how many opposite-sex married couples are not. Marriage equality would benefit same-sex couples, but it would also provide huge benefits to their children, who would gain many protections by having their parents' relationship legally recognized.

Denying couples marriage recognition by the State serves to discriminate not only against the individuals wishing to enter into those marriages, but also harms all of us who remain living in a society where we know that we are allowing family, friends and neighbors to be discriminated against by their government.

New York has a reputation for being at the forefront in the fight to eliminate the vestiges of discrimination, but we have not kept up with many of our neighboring states when it comes to ensuring basic equality for lesbian and gay New Yorkers. In the last year, Connecticut, Iowa, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine (which unfortunately recently voted to reverse recognition of same sex marriages) have joined Massachusetts by acting to legalize same-sex marriage. Joining these states will serve to demonstrate the ability of our institution to act on critical issues at a time when many doubt that we have that capacity.

I do not know that this legislation will pass, although I am optimistic. But whether we have the votes to pass marriage equality legislation or not, it will be a credit to the Senate and a vindication of the rules changes we made this summer, if leadership brings the bill up for a vote. It will demonstrate that we are becoming more democratic as an institution, and that we are willing and able to discuss and vote on issues critical to our State without requiring that the outcome be predetermined. A vote on marriage equality would thus also be a significant step toward fulfillment of efforts to reform the institution of the Senate.

The Governor has called us back for a special session on November 9th and 10th, and I believe this is the perfect opportunity for us to act on marriage equality legislation. Doing so will be a basic step toward creating equality for all before the law and in demonstrating our ability as a legislative body to take action on critical issues impacting so many New Yorkers.