The “Ithaca 50,” a group of 25 same-sex couples from Ithaca, are still awaiting a decision by New York State concerning their rights to be legally recognized as married.
Their fight began in February of 2005 with a lawsuit brought against the state, based on the principle that the right of any couple to marry is a right to privacy and a right to liberty.
Two years ago last month, the New York Supreme Court ruled that the state law prohibiting same sex marriage was unconstitutional. The decision made its way through appeals courts, and, in July 2006, that decision was overturned by the New York Court of Appeals. The court upheld that the state’s marriage laws were constitutional, reversing February’s decision.
The courts ultimately decided that only the state legislature had the ability to legalize same-sex marriage. While New York’s constitution does not specify the sex of couples marrying, it also does not compel courts to recognize same-sex marriages.
Before his election last year, Democratic Governor Eliot Spitzer told The Sun that he would “support a statute to make [same-sex marriage] statutorily acceptable” and that he believes “same-sex marriage should be constitutional and legal.”
“I have said with great clarity that I think that same-sex marriage should be legal,” Spitzer said in July, according to a New York Times transcript. “I will propose a bill to permit that to be the case here in the State of New York. And I will act on that if I’m fortunate enough to be elected governor.”
Many people thought that Spitzer’s stance on same-sex marriage during his campaign was important, but it is more important that he follows through.
“Politicians know that they can market to minority constituencies with promises such as marriage equality,” said Calvin Selth ’07, the LGBTQ Representative to the Student Assembly. “When elected, it is important that they keep those campaign promises. Spitzer gained LGBT support during the election for his position on the issue of same sex marriage; now it’s important that he express that support as governor.”
Spitzer has already taken measures that demonstrate his commitment to increasing rights and services for New York’s LGBT community. Funding directed at the LGBT community specifically first appeared in the governor’s Executive Budget in fiscal year 2003. On January 31, Spitzer allocated $6 million in funding in his Executive Budget for health and social services for New York’s LGBT population. This is more than twice the $2.373 million allocated last year.
Despite this increase in funding, Spitzer did not mention marriage equality in his State of the State address in January. Instead, he said that he plans for New York to be a “state that understands that the civil rights movement still has chapters to be written.”
“It is basically inevitable that we will have marriage equality in New York,” said Jason Hungerford, one of the Ithaca 50. “It is simply a matter of when. With Spitzer in office, I think it will be sooner rather than later. The political landscape in New York has shifted with his election.”
For a law recognizing the right of same-sex couples to marry in New York, a bill would need to be passed by the legislature and signed by the governor.
“We need state lawmakers on board,” Hungerford said. “We have 35 state assembly members on board for a same-sex marriage bill, including Barbara Lifton, the representative for Tompkins County. It is very possible that a bill will be introduced this legislative session.”
The legal recognition of same-sex marriages in New York would allow same-sex couples to enjoy benefits currently reserved only for heterosexual married couples.
“Whether same-sex marriage, civil unions or some other alternative is passed by the legislature, the core of the issue is equal protection under law,” Selth said. “I don’t care what it is called. It is a civil rights issue.”
Cornell currently offers benefits to partners of faculty and staff members, but the federal and state tax policies surrounding these benefits still differ from married couples.
“This is an issue that affects our daily lives,” Hungerford said. “The ability to marry would bring equality to all couples in the state, regardless of their sex.”
While many people support the steps being made toward marriage equality, some believe that the focus on marriage equality overshadows other issues relevant to the LGBTQ community.
“It is a positive step,” said Derek Schaeffer ’07, vice president of the Cornell Gay Straight Alliance. “But we also need to be focusing on more tangible issues such as discrimination in the workplace. There are other more pressing issues for the LGBT community.”