February 28, 2005

Judge Denies Same-Sex Marriage

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Same-sex couples in Ithaca cannot marry, according to a state supreme court ruling passed last Wednesday.

Judge Robert Mulvey told the 25 local couples seeking marriage licenses that it was up to the legislature, not the court, to grant them permission for matrimony.

“Social perceptions of same-sex civil contracts may change over time, and every group has the right to persuade its fellow citizens that its view of such matters is the best,” Mulvey stated. “If that day comes, it is within the province of the legislature to act.”

The state supreme court is the first of three rounds in this legal fight. The couples and their attorneys plan to appeal next to the appellate division, the state’s third department. From there, the losing side will most likely take the case before the court of appeals, New York’s highest court.

Jason Hungerford, one of the so-called “Ithaca 50,” went into court knowing the battle would not end there.

“We knew that at this level, whoever lost was going to appeal. If the judge ruled in our favor the state would appeal. If we lost, we would appeal,” he said.

Hungerford and the other 49 plaintiffs filed suit last spring after Mayor Carolyn Peterson, speaking for Ithaca, publicly supported their cause and encouraged them to apply for marriage licenses.

Although the couples are suing Ithaca and the state department of health, the city is actually filing a cross-claim backing them. It is also devoting its legal resources to their cause.

City attorney Marty Luster, who argued for the couples in court, noted that this was a rare situation. “It’s very unusual for a body that has been sued to turn around and agree with the people that have been suing it,” he said.

As the city’s representative, Luster disputed interpretations of the current statute, while attorneys of the plaintiffs took issue with the constitutionality of the law.

Elizabeth Bixler, one of the three local attorneys for the plaintiffs, argued that denying these couples the right to marry denied them equal protection of the law.

Fundamental rights of life, liberty and property mean the right to decide whom to marry, a right that should not be a decision of the court, Bixler said.

Mulvey rejected these arguments, reasoning that the current statute did not discriminate based on gender.

“Men and women enjoy equal rights to obtain a license to marry a person of the opposite sex,” he wrote.

He continued that in this case both sexes are equally prohibited from marrying a person of the same sex.

Luster, however, criticized this definition of equality as too narrow.

“If Mary and Jane want to get married, and the only reason they can’t is because of gender, because of sex, we think that there is indeed discrimination,” Luster said, adding that he will be arguing this point at the appellate division.

The City of Ithaca also drew upon the help of Cornellians for its case. Students for Marriage Equality, an organization of University law students, assisted Luster with research on issues including city standing and federal constitutionality.

Group president Judith Amorosa grad said that as the approximately 25-member organization conducted its research, its intention was “to keep these cases within New York State constitutional law because if a federal issue is raised, then it can be appealed to the Supreme Court of the U.S.”

“If [the U.S. Supreme Court judges] have to rule on a gay marriage law,” Amorosa said, “people think they will rule against it.”

Despite the recent ruling, the plaintiffs are optimistic that higher courts, as well as the rest of the nation, will eventually recognize same-sex marriages.

Hungerford called this trial “just the end of round one.”

“The law is on our side,” he said. “The State of New York has been known for its stamp on equal rights, and I think we will ultimately win.”

Even if the Ithaca 50 lose in the Court of Appeals, plaintiff Larry Roberts believes that eventually, “the state and the nation will recognize the right of people to form relationships with the person of their choosing.”

“It will be personally devastating but we are optimistic for the eventual victory,” he said.

Part of this optimism may come from a recent Manhattan ruling in favor of same-sex marriage as well as from the high-court decision passed last May in Goodridge vs. Massachusetts Department of Health, in which Massachusetts became the only state in the nation to allow marriage between same-sex partners.

Archived article by Xiaowei Cathy Tang
Sun Staff Writer