May has been a great month for gay rights. New York Governor David Paterson’s spokewoman announced yesterday that the governor sent a memo on May 14 ordering New York state agencies to recognize same-sex marriages performed in states and countries where they are legal. The memo was sent the day before the California Supreme Court struck down a ban on gay marriage.
The governor’s decision came after a New York state appeals court found in February that failing to recognize such legal marriages is a violation of the New York human rights law. The issue of gay marriage has had a long and convoluted history in New York; the state was one of the first testing grounds of legislation brought about by proponents of same-sex marriage back in 2004. Courts have ruled, stayed and struck down various rulings going every which way. In 2006 the New York Court of Appeals ruled that there is no constitutional right to same-sex marriage under the New York Constitution. But in February, 2008, a panel of judges ruled that because New York legally recognizes out-of-state marriages of opposite-sex couples, it must do the same for same-sex couples.
At this point two states — Massachusetts (in 2004) and California (earlier this month) — have legalized gay marriage. When the Massachusetts law was passed in 2004, it stated that gay couples need not be state residents to wed; however, then-Governor Mitt Romney resurrected a 1913 law banning non-resident marriages in the state if the marriage would be prohibited in the partners’ home state. (That law was originally passed in order to thwart interracial marriage.) Subsequent court and agency decisions determined that only residents of Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New Mexico could marry in Massachusetts, unless the parties said they planned on moving there after the marriage.
According to the directive, New York will also begin recognizing gay marriages that were performed outside the country, such as in Canada.
Marriage licenses for gay couples in California could be available as soon as June 17. Four states — New Hampshire, Vermont, New Jersey and Connecticut — currently permit civil unions. A number of other states recognize some rights for gay couples. The debate about the right of same-sex couples to marry is partially hinged on the benefits of such unions: family health care plans, tax breaks, stronger adoption rights and property inheritance, among others. Proponents argue that to limit gay marriage is to restrict basic rights of a group of citizens, while defenders of the “one man, one woman” idea argue that marriage is an institution based in a religion that considers homosexuality “unnatural” and sinful.