Equal Justice Under the Law!

Volume CIX, No. 6June, 2009

State Assemblyman Daniel O’Donnell

On April 16th, Governor Paterson held a press conference to formally introduce legislation that would grant same-sex couples the same legal recognition afforded to partners of the opposite sex. The press conference was a bold call to action and I was proud to stand with him that day.

In 2007, as the prime sponsor of identical legislation, I convinced 84 of my colleagues to join me and vote in favor of marriage equality. It was an historic accomplishment; the New York State Assembly was among the first legislative bodies to pass a marriage equality bill without having been compelled by a court to do so.

The landscape has improved dramatically since the Assembly’s vote in 2007. For the first time, every statewide elected official supports marriage equality. The number of states legalizing same-sex marriage has grown from one to five. The public is increasingly in favor of granting marriage rights to same-sex couples — an April Siena poll shows that a majority of New Yorkers in all regions of the state support marriage equality. Gov. Paterson is solidly behind the bill and as I write this the Assembly is poised to pass the legislation with an even wider margin. Unlike in 2007, the State Senate now has leadership who will not block the bill’s progress.

That year, 127,817 heterosexual couples were married in the state of New York. Every one of those couples was granted a piece of paper from their government and all appeared before an individual for a service that ended with “by the power vested in me by the State of New York…” Same-sex couples are denied that piece of paper — making the marriage license the only civil license which can be denied an applicant based on their gender.

The concept of “equal justice under the law” dates back to the birth of western civilization. In 430 B.C., the Athenian leader Pericles discussed the concept as a foundation of democracy. Since then, the concept has taken root in the founding documents of our country and our state. The fourteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution enshrines the concept of equal protection under the law and has been cited in Supreme Court cases which dismantled racial segregation and anti-miscegenation statutes, strengthened voting rights, and prohibited discrimination on the basis of gender. The phrase “equal justice under law” is literally carved in stone on the front of the United States Supreme Court building in Washington D.C.

Civil marriage is a legal circumstance with over a thousand rights, responsibilities, benefits, and obligations that lesbian and gay couples cannot currently assume. Under current law, partners unable to enter into a civil marriage — and their children — lack legal protections taken for granted by married couples and their families in such areas as property ownership, inheritance, health care, hospital visitation, taxation, insurance coverage, and pension benefits. Same-sex couples should have the right to legally ensure that each partner, and their children, will be protected in the case of illness, death, or the difficult times from which no family is exempt. Marriage equality is essential to the stability of New York’s lesbian and gay couples, their children, and society. New York State should seize this opportunity to abolish this obvious discrimination and unequal treatment under the law.

It is time that we live up to our founding ideals, the ideals that have driven and inspired the citizens of democracies for centuries. Our commitment to equal protection under the law calls upon us to open civil marriage to same-sex couples.