Yesterday, in a fitting environment to discuss one of today’s most contentious legal debates, four key members of Ithaca’s movement to legalize same-sex marriages met in a panel discussion at the Cornell Law School.
In a press conference in 2004, the Mayor of Ithaca, Carolyn K. Peterson, declared her support for same-sex marriages. Peterson, who had only been mayor for 6 weeks at the time, declared that she would forward all petitions for same-sex marriages to the New York State Health Department. Peterson promised that if the department denied those applications, she would support the couples by acting as their defendant if the they chose to sue.
Same-sex marriage “is the civil rights issue of our time” said moderator Prof. Trevor Morrison, law, in his introduction to the discussion.
Partaking in the lecture were Joseph Wheeler ’03, one of the couples who brought the suit, Marietta Geldenhuys, one of the couples’ attorney, Peterson and Martin A. Luster, attorney for the City of Ithaca
Wheeler started the discussion by answering the two questions he said he is asked most often regarding the issue: whether legalization of same-sex marriages will open the doors to the legalization of other taboos such as polygamy, and whether legalization of same-sex marriages will “cause larger battles against the gay rights movement and be counteractive.”
The Health Department denied the applications and the couples sued. In regards to the first question, Wheeler said while “we shouldn’t see these analogies as inappropriate,” he did see not fear any sort of “slippery slope effect.”
“Legalizing same-sex marriages is a logical stopping point” he said.
To support his claim, Wheeler listed a number of legal and moral distinctions between the authorization of same-sex marriage and of institutions such as polygamy.
To answer this second question, Wheeler responded to arguments made by Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.), whom Wheeler described as “liberal.”
“Feinstein said that the same-sex marriage movement was too much, too fast, too soon” Wheeler said. Feinstein also, according to Wheeler, “blamed the Democrats’ loss in the recent election on the issue.”
Wheeler first addressed Feinstein’s comments from a political standpoint. The issue, he said, “did hurt liberals” but not for the reasons that Feinstein gives. Unlike the Republicans’ cohesive stance against gay marriage, the Democrats’ message was “very confusing” Wheeler said.
“An inspirational argument can be made,” he said, “and there wasn’t any.” Consequently, according to Wheeler, people who were borderline on the issue were left “wholly uninspired.”
Wheeler also used historical data to refute Feinstein’s claims. Currently, according to Wheeler, about one third of Americans are unequivocally opposed to legal recognition of same-sex marriages. In 1958, Wheeler said, when interracial marriages were illegal, 94 percent of America was opposed to them. Nonetheless, in 1968, in Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court ignored public opinion and legalized the act. The point, Wheeler said, is that “people need to stand away from politics and polls and say, ‘what is right?'”
Geldenhuys focused largely on the arguments she will use to defend her clients’ right to marry. Much of her case rests on grounds that the Due Process and Equal Rights clauses of the 14th amendment support same-sex marriages.
Under the Due Process Clause, the states may not deny individuals of their “fundamental rights.”
“The right to marry the person of your choice,” Geldenhuys said, “is one of these fundamental rights.”
Furthermore, The Equal Rights Clause prohibits gender discrimination. According to Geldenhuys, to deny someone a same-sex marriage is to “deny someone a right based on their sex,” and thus, is gender discrimination.
Geldenhuys concluded her part in the panel by warning the audience about the dangers inherent in relying on tradition as a basis for legal decisions. Tradition, which many use as an argument against same same-sex marriage “is the single most discredited basis for continuing discriminating practices” Geldenhuys said.
In Peterson’s talk, she contrasted Geldenhuys’ legal perspective on the case with her political perspective.
Peterson first explained why she decided to involve herself and her city in such a controversial issue. She described Ithaca as a “safe-haven” for people of all lifestyles, and she wanted to protect this lifestyle.
“I know my community,” Peterson said, “I had to and wanted to make some sort of decision.”
Peterson then described the process that she underwent in coming to her decision. “I had the right to make the decision by myself” Peterson said. In light of this view, Peterson moved expeditiously and decided to consult only a few people before coming to her conclusion she said.
Peterson stood proudly by her actions; however, she did express shock at the quantity of hate-mail that she received for her actions.
Finally, Martin Luster discussed Ithaca’s legal battle with New York State.
Luster explained that Ithaca had been unable to grant marriage licenses to gay couples because New York State Department of Health had sent down an order forbidding them to do so. He said, “We denied marriage license and applications not because we wanted to, not because it was the city’s policy … but only because we were required to deny these licenses by the State Department of Health.” He added, “any violation could be given to the Distract Attorney for prosecution.”
Luster contested the Department of Health’s order and claimed it has no legal basis. Furthermore, Luster argued that existing New York state law allows for same sex marriage. “The language of the statues does not prohibit same sex marriage,” Luster said, adding “any gender specific language that exists in these statutes are antiquated genre specific language that we’ve read out of our law.”
Torello Calvani law ’06 and and his fiance Rebecca Carr attended the lecture so they could ask Peterson to marry them. Luckily, the couple will not run into the same sort of obstacles as Wheeler and his significant other have. Of this fact Carr said, “the lecture made me realize that marriage is a right which I take for granted.”
Archived article by Lauren Hirsch
Sun Staff Writer