Bishops Respond to New York Vote, Look to Future Battles

The New York State Senate passed a measure formalizing same-sex marriage 33 to 29 in an evening vote on June 24, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat and a Catholic, signed it into law later that night. Unless it is delayed by legal challenges, the new law will take effect in late July. New York would then become the sixth state in the nation to permit same-sex marriage, which is currently legal in Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont, in addition to the District of Columbia. The New York bill, entitled the Marriage Equality Act, dictates that “a marriage that is otherwise valid shall be valid regardless of whether the parties to the marriage are of the same or different sex.” The bill also directs that all other laws dealing with marriage or gender-specific subjects be reinterpreted to include two persons of the same sex who have obtained a marriage license.

In their response to the new law, the New York State bishops said that the true definition of marriage as the union of one man and one woman “cannot change, though we realize that our beliefs about the nature of marriage will continue to be ridiculed and that some will even now attempt to enact government sanctions against churches and religious organizations that preach these timeless truths.” Meanwhile, despite what they called a “sad moment in our state’s history,” the bishops will continue to work with Governor Cuomo and the legislature on behalf of the poor and vulnerable, the unborn and Catholic school parents, among others, said Dennis Poust, director of communications for the New York State Catholic Conference. “We can’t afford to cut off relations with legislators or with the governor because we have other fights to fight,” he said. “There are many more issues of grave concern to us. So we’ll just get up and brush ourselves off and continue on.”

On July 1 the U.S. Department of Justice filed a brief challenging the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as the legal union of one man and one woman. In the coming months, the issue of same-sex marriage will also emerge in various court challenges to Proposition 8, the 2008 California referendum restricting marriage to D.O.M.A.’s definition. In November, residents of the state of Minnesota will be voting on a referendum on the legal status of same-sex unions and the definition of marriage.

While the New York legislature included language that offered some protection to religious organizations—exemptions made public only in the last hours before the vote—its actual legal effect will have to be scrutinized. The last-minute amendment to the legislation exempts from liability members of the clergy who decline to perform same-sex weddings and protects any employee “being managed, directed or supervised by or in conjunction with a religious corporation, benevolent order or a not-for-profit corporation.” It also says failure to provide same-sex ceremonies would not “result in any state or local government action to penalize, withhold benefits, or discriminate against such religious corporation, benevolent order, a not-for-profit corporation operated, supervised or controlled by a religious corporation.”

Bishop Salvatore J. Cordileone, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage, said: “Marriage is a fundamental good that must be protected in every circumstance. Exemptions of any kind never justify redefining marriage.” Bishop Cordileone said marriage as an institution “affirms the vital and unique importance to children of receiving care from both their mother and father together…. Making marriage law indifferent to the absence of either sex creates an institutional and cultural crisis with generational ramifications yet to be seen.”

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