Emotions ran high in the ornate, red Senate chamber in Albany. Tears were shed. Angry words exchanged.
But, in the long run, the issue may be decided not on the basis of emotions but, rather, using the colder logic of the Constitution and the laws.
In the debate itself, the only opponent to speak in the chamber, Ruben Diaz Sr., criticized other senators who said that religion should not be a factor in deciding who can legally marry in New York. Said Diaz: “You should carry your Bible all the time.”
A poignant moment came when Senator Hassell-Thompson, 67, spoke of her gay brother, who ran away from home because of the disapproval of their religious father. With difficulty she tracked down her brother to a village in southern France. He said he didn’t want to come home because “my father doesn’t want to see me.”
The senator wept as she related how she told him: “But your sister does.” She explained: “He needed to know that the sister that he loved and revered struck a blow for justice for him.”
Black senators recalled slavery and the fight for civil rights. A Jewish senator evoked the pogroms of Czarist Russia to explain why she supported the bill. Liz Krueger of Manhattan wept as she recalled her grandparent’s escape from persecution.
But, as The New York Times suggested, the speeches did little to affect the outcome. In an editorial the newspaper said sarcastically: “The New York State Senate held an emotional debate on Wednesday in which there was talk of belief and conscience and eloquent reminders of earlier civil rights struggles. It then took a stand [38-to-24] against equality and fairness.”
Among those who voted against the bill was Senator Hiram Monserrate, a heterosexual accused of battering his girlfriend with a broken glass. He was convicted of committing a misdemeanor assault.
Although Monserrate’s record can hardly inspire confidence in his ability to make sound judgments on human relationships, you can feel empathy for many others on both sides of the issue. They bared family secrets. They disclosed some of their deepest feelings in this historic debate.
Yet, ultimately, it seems clear, the issue of gay marriage has to be decided on the basis of our Constitution, our laws and the very essence of our nation’s history.
The Declaration of Independence says that we are all created equal, endowed by our Creator “with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.
” Does the “pursuit of happiness,” as expressed in the Declaration, justify same sex marriage?
The equal protection clause of the Constitution, embodied in the 14th Amendment provides that “no state shall…deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws” --does that justify same sex marriage?
The issue is difficult but the solution ultimately must come from the remarkable documents that our founding fathers created more than two centuries ago.
In an uncanny way, these patriots of yesterday seemed to anticipate the most difficult issues of today. We can hope that their words will continue to guide us and inspire us -- and give us solutions to our most vexing problems.