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Tim Rutten: The road to marriage equality runs through New York

Here's hoping a bipartisan majority in the New York Legislature can work out a path to marriage equality.

June 22, 2011|Tim Rutten
  • THEY OBJECT: Paul Kosachiner, far right, and partner Michael Bologna attend a same-sex marriage rally at New York's Capitol building in Albany to protest the state's high court decision banning such unions based on the theory of "inevitable procreation."
THEY OBJECT: Paul Kosachiner, far right, and partner Michael Bologna attend… (Cindy Schultz / The Times…)

The current debate over marriage equality in the New York Legislature is a matter of importance to all, because at its heart it's about finally extending basic rights to those to whom they have been denied.

The state's Assembly already has approved a measure legalizing same-sex marriage; debate continues in the Senate, where proponents of equality are reportedly one vote short of passage in a chamber with a Republican majority. A vote could come as early as Wednesday, and if the measure passes, New York will become the largest state to have adopted marriage equality through legislation.

New York, in fact, has done the nation a service by taking the legislative route, not only because the final result will have the stamp of collective authority that the exercise of popular sovereignty firmly imparts but also because the give and take of legislative debate — both inside and outside the chamber — clarifies social questions and the breadth of their implications as no other process does. We are now, as we always have been, a people who rely on argument to know our collective mind.

The New York process is proving particularly instructive because the debate in Albany has produced articulate spokesmen for both sides.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is a Roman Catholic, educated in the church's schools and the Jesuits' Fordham University. He nonetheless came to office promising to pursue marriage equality. Last Friday, he called it "a matter of principle, not politics" and said, "This state has a proud tradition and a proud legacy as the progressive capital of the nation … and it's time for New York to lead the way once again."

New York City Archbishop Timothy Dolan has been a consistent public opponent of same-sex marriage. On Sunday, Father's Day, he used his widely read blog to argue that adoption of marriage equality inevitably will infringe on religious freedom, and that it is a radical assertion of governmental will, reminiscent — as he has previously written — of those in totalitarian countries such as North Korea.

"While one searches the Constitution in vain to find any 'right' of two people of the same sex to marry, one immediately locates the right of people of faith not to have intrusive government interfere with the free exercise of religion as the first of the Bill of Rights," he wrote. "One has to wonder why the proponents of this radical redefinition, who claim overwhelming popular support, would not consider, for example, a referendum to determine the people's will on such a drastic departure from traditional values?"

Polls show that 58% of New Yorkers support marriage equality; last month, a Gallup poll found that, over the last year, national support for equality has risen 9 points to 53%.

President Obama, who will attend a $1,250-a-plate "Gala With the Gay Community" in Manhattan on Thursday, endorses "equal protection under the law" for gay and lesbian couples but continues to believe that marriage equality should be worked out on a state-by-state basis. That makes the last-minute legislative negotiations over New York's bill all the more significant because they eportedly center on amending the measure to ensure that religious social service organizations and social organizations are not inadvertently coerced in violation of conscience.

Illinois' adoption of civil partnerships, for example, has provoked a particularly nasty confrontation with adoption agencies run by Catholic Charities. The agencies want to maintain their longstanding policies of not placing children with same-sex or unmarried couples. Because they receive state funds, however, they're now subject to the civil partnership measure's nondiscriminatory provisions.

The issue is now in court, but if it can't be resolved, Catholic Charities may simply go out of the childcare and adoption business. That's no small matter because its agencies care for 20% of Illinois' parentless children. Nationally, Catholic Charities, with 1,700 agencies, is the country's second-largest provider of social services after the federal government.

If a bipartisan majority in the New York Legislature can work out a path to marriage equality that doesn't involve the sort of destructive confrontation occurring in Illinois, the contribution to moral progress and the common good will be inestimable.

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