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For gay rights movement, a key setback



Gay marriage supporters march in Sheridan Square in Greenwich Village, expressing their disappointment at the court’s decision.

When Massachusetts became the first state to legalize gay marriage in November 2003, gay rights advocates imagined a chain reaction that would shake marriage laws until same-sex couples across the nation had the legal right to wed.

Nowhere did gay marriage seem like a natural fit more than New York, where the Stonewall uprising of 1969 provided inspiration for the gay rights movement and where a history of spirited progressivism had led some gay couples to envision their own weddings someday.

Last week's court ruling against gay marriage was more than a legal rebuke, then - it came as a shocking insult to gay rights groups. Leaders said they were stunned by both the rejection and the decision's language, which they saw as expressing more concern for the children of heterosexual couples than for the children of gay couples. They also took exception to the ruling's description of homosexuality as a preference rather than an orientation.

"I never would have dreamed that New York's highest court would be so callous and insulting to gay people - not in New York - to have a legal decision that treats us as if we are alien beings," said Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. The New York ruling came the same day that the Georgia Supreme Court reinstated a ban on gay marriage.


A lawyer, Susan L. Sommer, greeted Jo-Ann Shain, facing camera, and her partner, Mary Jo Kennedy, at St. Bartholomew’s Church last week.

The New York decision thrusts several challenges before gay activists: Do they continue waging legal battles when more courts seem sceptical about forcing gay marriage on the public? Should the cause turn toward more modest goals like supporting civil unions and domestic-partner benefits, like the law that Connecticut passed last year?

For now, at least, so-called marriage equality is the fight that both sides want to wage, and opponents are predicting that New York will be remembered as the beginning of the end of gay marriage.

"When people look back and write the history of this issue, they will view the New York decision as the Gettysburg in this big contest," said Monte Stewart, president of the Marriage Law Foundation.

Public opinion polls show that many Americans oppose gay marriage, and it is an issue that even separates some gay people, who see the marriage debate as a distraction from such pressing concerns as increasing federal and state support for AIDS research.

The debate, in turn, has helped intensify gay marriage's effectiveness as a political weapon, which was widely noted last month when Republicans in the United States Senate were defeated in a vote on their proposed constitutional amendment banning gay unions. The House may take up the issue soon.

Gay supporters who saw hopeful tidings nearly three years ago in the Massachusetts ruling had not believed that a stinging new defeat could happen here.

"The New York Court of Appeals has a long tradition of protecting equal rights for New Yorkers, but today the court let us down," said Christine C. Quinn, the first openly gay speaker of the City Council in New York.

Before the decision, some gay leaders predicted that it would take only a decade for several states to legalize gay marriage and the United States Supreme Court to set a single standard of civil marriage for all states by allowing gays to wed everywhere. Yesterday, some of those leaders said they were dispirited enough to wonder if it would take two decades or more to reach that goal. Not knowing seemed to hurt the most.

"New York just reminded us that we'll have to go through a long period of conflict and confusion before we make it to the other side," said Shannon Minter, legal director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, who will make arguments in a gay marriage case in California on Monday.

Both sides agreed that the legal analysis in the New York decision would be read by, and perhaps influence, judges in other states who are considering similar cases. A ruling in a New Jersey case is expected by August, and another decision is forthcoming in a case in Washington State. Four other states - California, Connecticut, Iowa and Maryland - have court cases pending.

Opponents of gay marriage immediately hailed the New York decision as a sign that the legal and political campaign toward gay marriage nationwide had stalled. More than 40 states have laws that restrict marriage to a man and woman, and no high court or state legislature has granted gays a right to marry anywhere except Massachusetts.

Mr. Stewart, of the Marriage Law Foundation, said he was particularly pleased by the "superb and straightforward legal analysis" of the New York decision.

(New York Times)

 

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