New York's top court today rejected a Christian legal group's challenge to some government benefits provided to gay couples legally married elsewhere and now living in New York.
The court rejected an argument that same-sex marriage was akin to incest and polygamy but avoided declaring that gay couples are entitled to all the rights of other married couples.
In a 4-3 decision on the narrow question of benefits, the Court of Appeals did not address whether the state must recognize same-sex marriage but encouraged the Legislature to settle the issue. The case was pushed by the Alliance Defense Fund of Scottsdale, Ariz.
A law to allow same-sex marriage in New York is hung up in the state Senate but could come to a vote before the end of the year. One judge warned that failing to address the larger question of recognizing same-sex marriages will create a problem.
"The effect of the majority's rationale in affirming these orders will be to permit an unworkable pattern of conflicting executive and administrative directives ... (at the) individual discretion of each agency head,'' Judge Carmen Beauchamp Ciparick warned in an otherwise concurring opinion.
"We ought to avoid the confusion that would arise from a same-sex couple considered legally married by one agency for one purpose, but not married by another agency for a different purpose,'' the judge wrote.
The court ruling noted that same-sex marriage isn't legal in New York under the state Constitution. However, the Constitution doesn't address whether New York can recognize a same-sex marriage legally performed in another state.
With Thursday's court decision, legally married same-sex couples will be entitled to public employee health insurance coverage and certain other benefits provided to heterosexual spouses.
The lawsuit challenged the granting of those benefits by the state Civil Service Department and Westchester County, and was upheld in a lower court. That ruling was challenged by the Alliance Defense Fund, which has fought similar decisions nationwide.
There was no immediate comment from the Alliance Defense Fund or Empire State Pride Agenda, a leading advocate for gay rights in New York.
The defendants had argued that a state rule recognizing common law marriages meant that same-sex unions performed elsewhere should be recognized in New York. The court said in its decision that it didn't have to consider that argument because of the narrowness of the case, pertaining only to certain benefits, but said it hoped the Legislature would address the question.
The Democrat-led Assembly passed a bill this year to legalize same-sex marriage, but the bill hasn't yet reached the floor in the Democrat-led Senate, where the measure appears a few votes short of passage.
Many gay New Yorkers have been married in a handful of states and Canada but reside in New York and seek hundreds of government benefits and rights they say they've been denied.
Gay marriage is legal in Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts and Vermont and was for a time in California. A New Hampshire law takes effect next year, and voters in Maine repealed a law this month that would have allowed same-sex marriage.
New York has provided eligibility for public employee benefits, including state health insurance program benefits, since the mid-1990s, but granting of the benefit was up to local governments. New York residents Margaret Godfrey, Rosemarie Jarosz and Joseph Rossini sought and in 2006 were granted the benefits in Westchester County, north of New York City.
The next year, New York's Department of Civil Service extended benefits to legally married same-sex spouses of state and local government workers.
Attorney Brian Raum of the Alliance Defense Fund had argued that a decision three years ago by the state's top court defined marriage as between one man and one woman, based on "well established public policies linking marriage in New York to procreation and the welfare of children.''
The state has exceptions for marriages performed elsewhere that are considered abhorrent in New York, including incest and polygamy. Raum argued that same-sex marriage should be regarded as another exception.
In Thursday's decision, the court cited a 1956 commentary by then-Gov. Averell Harriman, who said the Legislature intended to give the Civil Service Commission broad discretion in who qualified for coverage.
It "would not be practical to specify in legislation the precise type of coverage to be provided under a comprehensive health insurance plan. The law must make it possible for the best plan to be worked out,'' Harriman said, according to the decision.