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The family that protests together: Activists look to the Legislature for marriage.

The Court Objected, and Spoke

Gay marriage in New York hits a judicial roadblock, and activists look for support from the Legislature

 

It seemed inevitable to some: After Massachusetts legalized gay marriage in 2003, it was hard to imagine that liberal New York state would not soon follow. But on July 6, after the state Court of Appeals ruled that there is no constitutional mandate for gay marriage, it became clear to gay-rights activists that things are not going to be so easy. It also made some wonder: Just how progressive of a state is New York, anyway?

Not only did the court say that there is no mandate for equal marriage, it also expressed concern that children raised by gay couples may not be reared as well as children raised by straight couples.

“There are so many issues in terms of stability in opposite-sex couples that I don’t think that argument really washes with people nowadays,” said Albany Common Councilman Richard Conti, who has been in a relationship with his partner for two decades. However, a recent New York Times poll suggests that Conti might be surprised to learn exactly what will wash with New Yorkers.

According to an article in The New York Times, “Gay Ruling Shows New York Is Less Liberal Than It (and the U.S.) Thinks.” Only 32 percent of people statewide support gay marriage (compared to 35 percent in New York City, and 23 percent nationwide). And the state’s national Democratic representatives seem to have the pulse of the people: Sens. Chuck Schumer and Hillary Clinton both have sidestepped the issue of gay marriage, and instead offered their support for “full equality” through civil unions.

Conti said he does not see civil unions as fully equal.

“People want to take a different tack,” he said. “It’s almost like you are getting a separate-but-equal standard. I don’t think that standard can be quite as equal and clean as providing marriage on a nondiscriminatory basis.”

As a councilman, Conti has worked to make equal-rights ordinances part of Albany City law. But he said when it comes to equal marriage rights, he has come to the end of his abilities as a councilman. Conti, along with a number of gay-rights organizations, say that the fight for equal marriage rights is now in the hands of the state Legislature. The Empire State Pride Agenda has launched a campaign to get the Legislature to legalize gay marriage.

State Sen. Neil Breslin said he supports equal marriage but thinks the public might not be ready for the term “marriage” when it comes to gay nuptials. “The hang-up is with the term ‘marriage,’ ” he said. “Marriage suggests something historically different than a gay marriage. If you do it in steps, go for civil union with everything being the same except the title, the title would come.”

Breslin responded to The New York Times poll showing that 32 percent of New Yorkers support gay marriage by saying, “I think if they changed that question to how many support civil union, there would be well more than a majority.”

Breslin noted that getting gay marriage or civil unions through the Senate will hinge on the upcoming elections, as the Senate is currently controlled by Republicans, and Majority Leader Joe Bruno doesn’t support gay marriage. However, Breslin said that the Senate has been swayed by overwhelming public opinion before. He also insisted that he has undergone a change of heart. “I had an evolution. I was in favor of civil unions, but I chatted with enough groups to realize, ‘Why should they be denied that last piece?’ ”

While the Republican-controlled Senate may be a focus for some activists, gay marriage bills have stalled in the Democratic-controlled Assembly in the past. The Empire State Pride Agenda plans to start their campaign by pushing to get a bill through the Assembly.

The future of gay marriage in New York does not rely solely on the Legislature—it also depends on who occupies the governor’s mansion after this November.

On July 6, on the steps of the state Capitol, hundreds gathered to show their displeasure with the court’s ruling and to voice their support for gay marriage. And while the crowd was filled with local and statewide activists, gay couples, supporters and participants in the court case, one of the first people to take the stage and address the crowd was Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings.

Jennings pledged to the crowd that he supported them and would look to the Legislature to act for their cause. Jennings had previously signed a statement saying that Albany would recognize gay weddings performed in other places like Massachusetts and Canada. Jennings, who supported George Pataki in his last run for governor, reminded the crowd that there would soon be a new governor who would support their cause, and his name, he said, “is Eliot Spitzer.”

Spitzer announced that day that, if elected, he would draft legislation to legalize gay marriage. Some insiders suggest that Spitzer’s backing might be enough to energize and sway Albany lawmakers to support the legislation. However, during his time as attorney general, Spitzer had argued that the state constitution does not support gay marriage. Spitzer said that he was simply doing his job as attorney general and was not taking his personal beliefs into consideration.

Spitzer’s challengers, on the other hand, Republican John Faso and Democrat Tom Suozzi, both have said they do not support gay marriage. Faso has come out against gay marriage in general, whereas Suozzi has released statements indicating his support for civil unions.

Conti noted that the battle for equal marriage rights in New York faces a new dawn. “Everything is at a beginning now. Things are on a totally different playing field, taken from the courts to the Legislature.” Conti said that gay-rights groups will now begin organizing grassroots campaigns to educate New Yorkers, to show them that this is an equal-rights issue. “I don’t think people see it as the threat some would like to make it out to be.”

Oddly enough, Conti said, he agrees with conservative pundit George Will about gay marriage. “I was surprised watching George Stephanopoulos; he threw this issue out to the talking heads . . . and George Will’s take was, ‘People should just let some states do it, see what happens and judge what the impact is.’ ”

“I agree,” said Conti. “Why don’t you just try it?”

—David King

dking@metroland.net


What a Week

Big Tragedy

Begun in 1991, Boston’s massive road restructuring project, the Big Dig, has been consistently criticized for wasting tax- payers’ money, snarling traffic and causing accidents. Contractors have been accused of shoddy workmanship and embezzling funds. But on July 11, the Big Dig officially became a crime scene after 12 tons of concrete collapsed in a tunnel and crushed a newlywed woman. Massachusetts Attorney General Tom Reilly said, “No one is going to be spared” from his investigation into the accident. Gov. Mitt Romney has taken legal action to oust the head of the Turnpike Authority.

Something to Wine About

In case you need some extra motivation to get concerned about global warming (other than Al Gore’s prodding), the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reports that something really important could be at stake: 50 to 80 percent of areas suitable for growing premium wine grapes could be lost if temperatures keep increasing. The report says that wine grapes need consistent temperatures to grow, and when temperatures reach over 95 degrees, sugars in the grapes break down.

Calderon See, Calderon Do

Karl Marx said, “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.” And after the tragedy of the 2004 vote theft in Ohio, the recent presidential election in Mexico is shaping up to be quite the farce. Conservative Felipe Calderon defeated populist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in the bid for the presidency of Mexico amid widespread speculation of voter fraud and intimidation. The official count showed that Calderon won by around 220,000 votes of the 41 million cast, or roughly just over half a percentage point. President-elect Calderon is moving ahead in preparation for the transition of power despite efforts by Orbrador and his supporters to bring the alleged voter fraud to light.

Shocked, We’re Shocked

Columnist Robert Novak has confirmed it: Karl Rove was one of the leaks outing Valerie Plame. Gasp! The syndicated conservative pundit said that he told Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald in early 2004 that the wily White House senior adviser had confirmed for him information about the CIA operative. Novak said he also told Fitzgerald about another senior administration official who provided him with the information. Wonder who that could be?



Undocumented at Any Speed

Court rules the DMV can make immigrants jump through controversial hoops to get driver’s licenses

The July 6 ruling by a New York state appellate court in Manhattan was unanimous. The five-member panel, in overturning a lower court’s 2005 decision, said the state Department of Motor Vehicles has the authority to demand that immigrants meet strict identity requirements, such as presenting Social Security numbers or proof of legal status, when seeking a driver’s license. Critics of these regulations say that the ruling missed the point.

“This ruling will create a public-policy nightmare,” said Fred Pfeiffer, coordinator with the Capital District Worker Center in Albany. The DMV has strayed from its specific purpose of regulating vehicles and ensuring that only safe vehicles are allowed on the road, he said, adding that the court’s ruling took an expansionary view of the DMV’s role, condoning the agency’s seizure of authority not granted to it by legislative mandate.

“I liken the DMV now policing immigrants through truncated Social Security procedures,” Pfeiffer said, “to having a toll collector inspect your car when you go on the Thruway. Toll collectors are fine. They know exactly what to charge you for going from Point A to Point B, but they don’t know what your emissions standards are. They don’t know if you have got good brakes.”

In 2002, in an apparent effort to address national security concerns, the DMV enacted regulations aimed at keeping driver’s licenses out of the hands of undocumented immigrants. These new statues state that all applicants must supply proof of their identity and age, and that, notably, the agency itself will decide which proofs of identity are allowed. Foreign passports and foreign birth certificates are out, the DMV said. Only applicants with Social Security numbers, or proof of legal status, would be allowed.

One of the more controversial measures the DMV enacted is the “one year/six month” requirement. This rule states that any immigration document, such as a visa, presented by an applicant must have been issued for one year or longer and still have six months remaining at the time of seeking the license. This rule is simply too rigid, said Jackson Chin, an associate council with Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund in New York City, the group that brought the original suit.

The lead plaintiff in that suit, Maria Cubas, Chin said, was a victim of the “one year/six month” rule. She came in two days short of the six-month requirement when filing her paperwork on a learner’s permit.

“She was easily someone that could be identified as here legally, with all the rights to work here,” he said. “But they applied the ‘one year/six month’ requirement to say that she didn’t have six months left on her work document.” So Cubas was denied her permit and had to wait nearly six months before she could apply for a renewal card. Then after applying, she had to wait a few more months before she was issued a card. All in all, she had to wait around nine months just to get her permit.

“We tried to explain that she worked in this food-processing plant, and she did mixed shifts, working daytime and nighttime,” Chin said. “She had to take two buses, and it was in the industrial area of the Bronx. She was worried about crime and worried about leaving the factory late at night and getting home safely. That is why she was looking into getting a driver’s license. So she could drive the family car back and forth to work.”

Stories like Cubas’, he said, are all too common.

“In this day and age,” Chin said, “immigration status and individual status are moving targets. It is a very complex area. To have a general DMV employee—and I know that they receive some training and they have to check with their supervisors—but to expect the DMV to know all the laws about immigration. . . . It is not possible.”

Pfeiffer agreed. “It is a very complicated, truncated process to get documentation and to petition for families to come together. The immigration procedure is so convoluted that it can take years.” He mentioned just one horror story in which a young man from an African country began to seek U.S. citizenship in 1986. The man is still in the process of getting his documentation.

“And if you take away people’s ability to drive,” Pfeiffer said, “if you are cutting down on people’s ability to drive, you are cutting down on their potential to proceed to get documentation. It goes against the proper role of government to provide an environment for people to reach their potential.”

And if national security is the DMV’s concern, as was argued in the original 2005 court case, Chin said, then it makes no sense to alienate and drive away undocumented workers.

“What do you do with an estimated 500,000 undocumented workers when they are off the grid?” he asked. “Because once the DMV says, ‘I am no longer renewing your driver’s license,’ or ‘I am no longer issuing you a driver’s license,’ then these people are still among us. But now you have people who are shoved out and not in any official database. Wouldn’t you want to know that these workers have been identified and have registered and reregistered at the DMV? The DMV records are tapped and used by all law enforcement.”

The effects of the DMV’s attempt to heighten identity requirements are so far-reaching, critics say, that it ought to go beyond the jurisdiction of one agency to dictate. The licensing of immigrants touches on many policy issues, Chin said, the kinds of issues that the Legislature clearly has the mandate and the mission to address. “The DMV commissioner took it upon himself to act, basically, as a mini-Legislature when he created these procedures and rules that went beyond his authority.”

Chin said that PRLDF is considering filing an appeal to the decision. “We have to review the technical requirements for filing the appeal. We are still reviewing the legalities, which are rather extensive.”

DMV representatives, despite numerous attempts, were unavailable for comment.

—Chet Hardin

chardin@metroland.net




Overheard

Overheard:

“Delaware Avenue’s haunted.”

“Delaware Avenue?”

“Yeah. Something bad happened there.”

—CDTA Route 18 bus, in the midst of a discussion of haunted houses.

 

Overheard:“Question his manhood.”

—Ralph Nader, at a press conference Tuesday supporting Alice Green, in response to a question about how Green could convince Mayor Jerry Jennings to participate in a debate.



Loose Ends

-no losse ends this week-



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