March 2, 2004

Peterson Announces Gay Marriage Policy

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Surrounded by members of the Ithaca Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Task Force, Mayor Carolyn K. Peterson announced yesterday morning that while she supports same-sex marriage, the City of Ithaca will not issue marriage licenses to lesbian and gay couples.

The announcement comes after weeks of debate surrounding Mayor Gavin Newsom of San Francisco’s decision to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The mayor of New Paltz, N.Y. performed wedding ceremonies for 21 lesbian and gay couples on Friday.

“The New York State Health Department does not currently allow city clerks to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Accordingly, any same-sex couples who apply for a marriage license here in Ithaca will have their application accepted, and the City will forward each application to the State Department of Health for individual determinations. It is our belief that such action will best secure each couples’ legal position should they wish to challenge Albany’s decision,” Peterson said.

Peterson explained that marriage in New York State works differently than in California, where the mayor has full authority to issue marriage licenses. In New York, only the city clerk’s office can do so.

“Any clerk who does issue same-sex marriage licenses is subject to criminal prosecution,” said City Attorney Martin A. Luster. He explained that Ithaca will join in any lawsuit brought against the state if and when the Department of Health denies same-sex marriage applications.

While the mayor’s announcement was met with applause, arguments that she was not doing enough soon followed.

“The United States has a rich history of civil disobedience under unjust law, such as Rosa Parks. She broke a law that was unjust during the civil rights movement … The mayor in the other city in New York State is performing an act of civil disobedience against an unjust law. It seemed to me that you were saying that the law is unjust. Would you and could you please find the courage to do civil disobedience and marry somebody without the permission of the state. It would be a true American act to break an unjust law,” said one Ithaca resident who was heavily cheered amidst cries of “Courage, Carolyn.”

Others, however, argued that the mayor’s move was not only politically savvy, but also extremely powerful.

“When I woke up Sunday morning, I was mad at Carolyn Peterson because I felt like she wasn’t there with me for the fight. My partner and I are almost celebrating our ten-year anniversary. We’re in this for the long haul. I want some rights; that’s all I want. Equal rights. No more. No less. Period. In talking with Carolyn this morning, in talking with this group of people yesterday, what I have learned is that political strategy must be at play right now because I am not willing to be a part of any action that’s going to take my rights backwards. The Defense of Marriage Act is gaining interest in New York State. I’m not willing to do anything to make my rights diminish; but instead, slowly and incrementally, with the support of my elected public officials, move forward to assure that i have equal rights under the law, and I am no longer seen as a second-class citizen. So, I say, go Carolyn,” said Maureen Kelly, a representative of ILGBTTF.

Gwendolyn Alden Dean, director of the LGBT Resource Center at Cornell, who has worked with ILGBTTF on this and other issues, voiced qualified support for Peterson’s statement.

“[The mayor’s decision] is fine. It’s not exciting, but it’s fine.