NEW YORK – Gay rights advocates had reason to celebrate on both coasts Thursday, with New York set to recognize same-sex marriages performed elsewhere and California preparing to begin issuing marriage licenses to gay couples on June 17.
Hours after California issued a directive Wednesday authorizing that date, word came that New York Gov. David Paterson instructed state agencies — including those governing insurance and health care — to immediately change policies and regulations to recognize gay marriages.
For years, gay rights advocates have sought recognition for same-sex marriages so couples could share family health care plans, receive tax breaks by filing jointly, enjoy stronger adoption rights and inherit property.
Many or all of those rights would now appear to be available to New Yorkers who legally wed same-sex partners in other states and countries, according to the memo sent earlier this month from the governor's counsel. Agencies have until June 30 to report back to the counsel on how, specifically, the directive will change existing state benefits and services for gay couples.
"This is a milestone in the fight for fairness in New York," Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement. "Couples in New York who have never known true security for their families will be officially entitled to treatment by our state government that respects their rights."
The Rev. Duane Motley, director of New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms, which has lobbied against the legalization of gay marriage, declined to comment on Paterson's directive. State Conservative Party Chairman Michael Long didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.
Massachusetts is currently the only U.S. state that recognizes same-sex marriage, but its residency requirements would bar New Yorkers from marrying there.
New York residents could instead flock to California, where gay couples will be able to wed beginning June 17 — unless that state's Supreme Court decides to stay its own ruling same-sex gay marriage. Upon their return home, in the eyes of the state, their unions would be no different from those of their heterosexual neighbors.
Gay couples could also travel outside the country to marry in Canada or one of the other nations where same-sex marriage is legal.
The move by Paterson's administration does not legalize same-sex marriage in New York. The state's highest court, the Court of Appeals, has said it can only be legalized by the Legislature, which failed to pass a proposed measure last year.
The memo, one of the strongest steps the state can take short of action by the Legislature, cited a Feb. 1 ruling by a New York Appellate Division court in a case involving a woman wed in Canada who was denied benefits by her partner's employer.
The appellate judges determined that there is no legal impediment in New York to the recognition of a same-sex marriage. The state Legislature "may decide to prohibit the recognition of same-sex marriages solemnized abroad," the ruling said. "Until it does so, however, such marriages are entitled to recognition in New York."
In a video shown Saturday at the Empire State Pride Agenda's spring dinner, the governor said he directed the move as "a strong step toward marriage equality right here in our state."
"We're aware that our advocacy is incomplete and we will keep trying until people who love each other and want to get married, regardless of who they are, have that opportunity," Paterson said in the video, which was posted on the gay rights organization's Web site.
Paterson spokeswoman Erin Duggan said the May 14 memo is intended to guide the actions of state agencies. It states that agencies must change policies and regulations to make sure "spouse," "husband" and "wife" are clearly understood to include gay couples.
The memo says failure to include gay marriages in the dispensing of state services such as health care benefits could violate state human rights law. The agencies could face sanctions for any violations, it warns.
The agency changes can be instituted through internal memos or changes in regulations and would not require legislative action, Paterson counsel David Nocenti said in the memo, first reported by The New York Times.
Former Gov. Eliot Spitzer and Paterson, his running mate for lieutenant governor, campaigned in 2006 on a platform that included bringing equal rights to gays. Spitzer, however, said the state constitution didn't sanction gay marriage.
Last year, a bill to legalize same-sex marriage in New York was approved by the Democrat-led Assembly, but the Republican-led Senate hasn't taken it up.
In California, a group opposed to gay marriage has asked the state Supreme Court to grant a stay of its May 15 ruling until after the November election, when voters are likely to face a ballot initiative that would define marriage as a union between a man and a woman. Passage of the initiative would overrule the Supreme Court.
Justices have until June 16 to rule on the stay request, according to the memo sent Wednesday by e-mail to the state's 58 county clerks.
The guidelines from Janet McKee, chief of California's office of vital records, contained copies of new marriage forms that include lines for "Party A" and "Party B" instead of bride and groom. The gender-neutral nomenclature was developed in consultation with county clerks, according to the letter.
"Effective June 17, 2008, only the enclosed new forms may be issued for the issuance of marriage licenses in California," the directive reads.