March 14, 2006

NYS Appellate Court Rules Against the 'Ithaca 50'

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The City of Ithaca has been at the forefront of the fight for same-sex marriage rights for two years. A group of 25 gay couples, dubbed the ‘Ithaca 50,’ is suing the New York State Department of Health to be legally married – to share the same rights and benefits that heterosexual couples enjoy.

On Feb. 16, the NYS Appellate Court ruled 5-0 against the Ithaca 50, upholding last year’s lower court decision that it is unconstitutional for same-sex couples to marry. The case now awaits a hearing before the NYS Court of Appeals.

Alderman Shane Seger (D-1st Ward) said that before the Ithaca 50 case, he had never seen the Ithaca LGBT community become so involved in an issue. Two years ago, after New Paltz, N.Y. Mayor Jason West controversially performed same-sex marriages in his village, the Ithaca community devised a three pronged approach in response to West’s actions: political action, legal action and community outreach.

After West’s controversial move, the Ithaca LGBT community also demanded a response from Ithaca Mayor Carolyn K. Peterson.

At a press conference Peterson held in 2004, she said that gay couples could apply for marriage licenses which the city would send to the State Department of Health, according to one of the Ithaca 50, Jason Hungerford. Once the department denied the couples’ license applications, Peterson encouraged the same-sex couples to sue the city and the NYS Department of Health and said that Ithaca would stand behind the plaintiffs.

As a couple, Hungerford and his partner, Jason Seymour, referred to as “The Jasons,” filed their lawsuit against the City of Ithaca, specifically Julie Holcomb, the city clerk, and the NYS Department of Health, in June 2004.

Seymour said that in court, Ithaca officials stood with the plaintiffs, making the case’s official title, Jason Seymour et al. v. Julie Holcomb as City Clerk of the City of Ithaca et all. Procedurally, they supported the NYS Department of Health, but ideologically backed Seymour.

According to Mariette Geldenhuys, one of the attorneys representing the Ithaca 50, the city is listed as a defendant for paperwork purposes only: it does not marry same sex couples. However, Ithaca supports same-sex couples wishing to get married on the basis that it is unconstitutional not to.

“Ithaca basically opened the door for a lawsuit against against the New York State Department of Health” Seymour said.

Hungerford added, “This action let us put pen to paper and gave us grounds for a lawsuit, the only way for process.”

Both Hungerford and Seymour say they “love the mayor for what she did – that her actions two years ago were the most elegant way of getting the same-sex marriage issue settled.”

“It’s our opinion that the mayor took the correct steps and followed the law,” Seymour said.

Seymour contrasted Mayor West’s actions with Peterson’s: his actions were only a symbolic gesture, as the couples in New Paltz have no more rights now than before West married them.

The Ithaca 50 case was heard in Elmira at the New York State Supreme Court – the lowest of the three levels of civil courts in the state- in January 2005 under Justice Robert C. Mulvey. In February 2005, Mulvey ruled against the Ithaca 50.

Despite the court’s ruling, Hungerford and Seymour were pleased about the proceedings. They said that there was “legitimate questions on both sides” and that Mulvey was “listening to both sides.”

However, Seymour said that the decision was “a cop-out, a lazy court answer,” because the court ruled that same-sex marriage was a matter for the legislature.

“It’s the court’s job to interpret laws and in this case they did not interpret, they passed it over to the legislature,” said Seymour.

The case was then heard at the NYS Appellate Court in October 2005 and the judges ruled against the Ithaca 50 in February.

Geldenhuys explained that the state’s refusal to grant the plaintiffs a marriage license violates both the due process and equal protection clauses of the constitution. She said that New York State’s current laws against same-sex marriage violate the due process clause because “it’s a fundamental right to marry the person of one’s choice and that right cannot be denied without due process of law,” while the laws violate the equal protection clause because gays and lesbians wishing to be married are not treated equal to heterosexual couples. The laws also violate the equal protection clause in terms of gender discrimination because, for example, if a man and woman both wanted to marry a woman, the man could, but the woman could not.

Alderman Seger said before the Ithaca 50 case, the last big issue for the Ithaca LGBT community was the inclusion of sexual orientation in the county non-discrimination ordinance, Local Law C in 1991. Tompkins County was the first in New York State to prohibit sexual orientation discrimination, according to the United Progressive Alumni website.

Archived article by Jessica DiNapoli
Sun Staff Writer