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Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Cuomo Introduces Marriage Equality Bill


One day after Governor Andrew Cuomo and leading advocates for marriage equality in New York agreed to move forward on seeking a vote before the Legislature adjourns on June 20, the governor introduced his program bill, which will require approval by both the Senate and the Assembly during the final four days of session.

As a bow to some Republicans who have raised concerns about encumbrances that opening up marriage to same-sex couples might have on religious freedom, the governor’s bill is more expansive on that point than the measure approved three times by the Assembly.

The additional language, however, merely tracks existing human rights law in New York State.

The marriage equality measure considered in 2007 and 2009 included language making clear that no clergy “shall be required to solemnize any marriage” as a result of the law.

The governor’s bill, drawing on longstanding provisions in the state human rights law –– which outlaws discrimination based on a wide array of categories, including, since 2002, sexual orientation –– reiterates that neither religious organizations nor “benevolent organizations” will be required to provide access to their facilities as a “public accommodation.”

Under human rights law, access to public accommodations –– function rooms, restaurants, hotels, and other facilities rented out to the general public –– must be provided on an equal basis. New York law, however, deems such facilities owned by religious or benevolent group to be “distinctly private,” and therefore not treated as public accommodations.

The governor’s marriage bill also picks up existing provisions of law spelling out that nothing prohibits religious organizations and charities and educational institutions they operate from limiting employment and access to housing to members of their religion or “from taking any action as is calculated by such organization to promote the religious principles for which it is established or maintained.”

To the extent that either side in the marriage debate argues that these provisions are either too generous to religious organizations or too onerous on them, that debate is a long-settled matter in state human rights laws. By picking up the existing statutory language, the Cuomo bill, in a sense, emphasizes that marriage equality will not change the status quo balance between religion and the gay and lesbian community.

Greg Ball, a Putnam County Republican who has signaled openness to the marriage equality bill this year after voting no in 2009, has also been among the most outspoken in articulating concerns about religious protections. He has said he needs to see specific carve-outs for clergy performing marriages and in the rental of church facilities for wedding receptions –– and has also suggested he would like an exemption for private business owners who have religious objections to offering access to facilities that are otherwise public accommodations. That last point has consistently been a non-starter among marriage equality advocates.

Shortly after the governor released his bill, Ball told Gay City News that the new language addressed some of his concerns, but not others.

"I'm going to reach out and see how comfortable the Catholic Church is,” he said.

After three new Democratic supporters and one Republican, James Alesi of Rochester, on June 13 brought the public count of yes votes to 30 of the 32 needed for passage, Cuomo said he was confident marriage equality would pass if the Republican majority allows a floor debate and vote. (On June 14, Senator Roy McDonald, a Troy Republican, announced his intention to vote yes.) Since last fall, the GOP leader, Dean Skelos of Long Island, has repeatedly said he expects his conference to support that, though he has declined to offer a guarantee.

Late in the afternoon on June 14, Kelly Cummings, a Skelos staffer, said the Republicans would take up the question of a floor vote on June 15.

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