By Bob Roehr
Lambda Legal sought full marriage rights for same-sex couples in New York State in a lawsuit filed in Manhattan on March 5. The case is formally known as Hernandez vs. Robles.
“This is the whole enchilada. We seek and intend to win, full marriage for lesbian and gay couples across New York – nothing more and nothing less,” said Lambda executive director Kevin Cathcart. “The protections only marriage provides are uniquely important to gay New Yorkers; these couples have waited long enough.”
Daniel Hernandez, 46, and Nevin Cohen, 42, have been together as a couple for five years and plan to adopt children. They applied for a marriage license on March 5 but were denied, thus triggering the lawsuit.
“The reason that Daniel and I are here today is really quite simple, we love each other very much. Our friends and family recognize us as a loving couple and getting married just seems like the natural next step for us to take,” Cohen said at Lambda’s news conference.
“We don’t want to go to another state or another country to be married,” Hernandez added, “We want to be married right here, at home.”
The lawsuit lays out a history of decisions in which New York courts have struck down discrimination against gays and lesbians as a violation of the equal protection clause of the state constitution. “This lawsuit is the next natural development in a line of cases that have upheld gay couples’ fundamental right to be treated with respect by their government,” said Susan Sommer, Lambda’s lead attorney on the case.
On March 3, New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, a Democrat and supporter of gay marriage, issued a legal opinion that the existing law did not allow for the issuing of marriage licenses to same-sex couples. He recommended that local officials not issue those licenses.
Spitzer agreed that the question raises “important constitutional questions involving the equal protection of the laws.” Those must be resolved by the courts.
Existing case law indicates, “Same-sex marriages and civil unions lawfully entered in other jurisdictions outside the state should be recognized in New York.”
That same day Jason West, the Mayor of New Paltz who had issued marriage licenses to gay couples the previous week, was in court facing 19 criminal counts of violating the law for issuing those licenses.
West later postponed a scheduled second round of issuing licenses to the more than 1,200 couples on the town’s waiting list. However, several local clergymen stepped in to replace him and solemnized the unions of several more gay couples, but without a license, the status of those unions is in question.
Republican Governor George Pataki has expressed no need to change the marriage law, while the powerful Republican Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno has stated his strong opposition to any such change. Bruno blocked enactment of New York’s gay rights act for years.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg, also a Republican, broke his silence on his personal views on gay marriage on March 4 at a small $1,000 a plate fund raising dinner for the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association. He said the state law should be enforced but it also should be changed to allow for same-sex marriage, according to several people at the dinner. The Mayor’s spokesman later confirmed those reports.
On Long Island, about 50 gay couples went to town halls in Babylon and Brookhaven on March 5 demanding marriage licenses. Town clerks said that state law kept them from doing so, while several local officials expressed support for changing the law. The events drew a media circus of ten camera crews.
The openly gay Mayor of Nyack applied for a marriage license with his partner and was refused, while the government of Ithaca has begun accepting marriage applications and is forwarding them to the Department of Health for approval.
The Empire State Pride Agenda, the principle gay political group in the state, is organizing an ongoing series of events to maintain public pressure on the issue.