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Gaining Momentum: New York Governor to Introduce Gay Marriage Law

By L. K. Regan

A week after Vermont followed Iowa onto the list of states with legal same-sex marriages, the list looks poised to lengthen yet further. The governor of New York is proposing a gay marriage bill in the state legislature, even as Washington broadens its state protections for gay couples, and rumblings in Congress suggest a potential moment of truth for the federal Defense of Marriage Act. Details follow!

This Thursday, New York Governor David Paterson plans to introduce legislation to the state Assembly that would give same-sex couples the right to legally marry in the Empire State. This is not the first time New York's legislature has considered such a measure. In 2007, similar legislation passed the lower house (the Assembly) by a vote of 85 to 61, only to founder in the more conservative state Senate. A similar outcome is feared this year, despite the fact that same-sex marriages are favored by a margin of 41 to 33 over civil unions according to a Quinnipiac University poll of NY voters. Democrats control the state Senate by a two-member majority, but the conservative opposition to the bill is vocal and steadfast. As Senate Republican spokesman John McArdle has said, "Our conference hasn’t supported gay marriage, and nothing has changed." There is a question of whether Democrats will bring the bill to the floor for a vote if they are not sure it will pass.

Given the potential vote shortage, and the reluctance of Senate Democrats to allow the bill to go down in public defeat, Governor Paterson's motivations in introducing this legislation at this particular point have been widely questioned. Paterson's tenure has been a rocky one, including a chaotic process for filling the US Senate seat opened by Hillary Clinton's appointment as Secretary of State. As one state Assemblyman told the press about the introduction of the marriage bill, "I think it’s an opportunity for him to show people that he really believes in something." What will come of that proof remains to be seen.

In Washington state and New Hampshire, wheels are turning that move toward expanded rights for gay couples, possibly including marriage. In New Hampshire on Wednesday, a state Senate committee held hearings on the wisdom on legalizing gay marriage. A bill to permit same-sex marriages has passed the state's House of Representatives, and is now awaiting the opinion of the state's Senate Judiciary Committee. That committee heard the arguments of both opponents and supporters of gay marriage this week. New Hampshire currently has civil partnerships; if it passes the proposed law, it would join the existing four states with same sex marriages (Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, and Iowa).

Meanwhile, in Washington state, gay marriage is off the table for the moment. But it's just about the only thing that is. That's because the Washington legislature has passed a bill granting same-sex couples every right, benefit, and obligation associated with marriage, short of the actual title. In practice, this means that, in all of the existing laws that mention marriage, language pertaining to partnerships will be added. That will include employment rights laws, pensions, and public benefits. "Married in all but name" one might term it—but that name is an important one.

This brings into view the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which prohibits the federal government from granting the benefits of marriage to any but opposite sex couples. This week, The Advocate is reporting that some members of Congress and the Senate are seriously discussing repealing part of DOMA, allowing the government to provide federal benefits at the very least to same-sex couples legally married in the states where such marriages are allowed. This would make a substantial difference to the rights earned by those marriages, and might move the nation that much closer to a "50-state solution" to the marriage question. As long as only straight marriages are the only ones recognized by the US government, equal rights remain out of reach. Hopefully that stands to change soon.