Same-sex marriages performed in Canada are as valid to New York State's largest public employee pension fund as the U.S. weddings of heterosexuals, state comptroller Alan Hevesi said. In an advisory decision released Wednesday, Hevesi said New York State court rulings and a March opinion by state attorney general Eliot Spitzer dictate that full benefits be extended to the partner of a public employee if the couple has been married in Canada.
Court rulings starting in June 2003 have validated same-sex marriages in six Canadian jurisdictions, including Ontario, Quebec, and British Columbia. Judges have ruled Hevesi was asked by an Albany-area state worker, Mark Daigneault, whether Daigneault's partner of 10 years would qualify for his pension benefits if the two are married in Canada. Hevesi said he would. "This was absolutely clear," Hevesi said. "The law was clear."
Hevesi said his decision was reached on the legal points and that his personal support for same-sex marriages was not a factor. The Democratic comptroller said he cannot make the same recognition of the validity of same-sex marriages performed in other states, such as Vermont, Massachusetts, or Hawaii, for pension eligibility purposes. He said those get into legal questions over equal protection and full-faith-and-credit clauses in state law and will ultimately be decided by the courts.
Though nearly 1 million current and former employees are covered by the New York State and Local Retirement System, Hevesi said he expected relatively few beneficiaries to marry in Canada and apply for benefit coverage for their same-sex spouses.
Dennis Poust, a spokesman for the state Catholic Conference, said on Wednesday that the state's Roman Catholic bishops are worried Hevesi's decision "will be one more piece of evidence to bolster the legal case for anyone bringing suit to challenge the state's marriage laws. This could help pave the way for same-sex marriage in New York State." The Catholic Church recognizes marriage as between a man and a woman and opposes same-sex marriages and civil unions.
The Empire State Pride Agenda, a gay and lesbian advocacy group, said the retirement system is the first government entity in New York State to recognize same-sex marriages as legally identical to marriages between heterosexuals. "It also happens to be the pro-family thing to do," said Alan Van Capelle, executive director of the Empire State Pride Agenda. "It ensures that all families in New York have what they need to take care of themselves, particularly in times of crisis like the death of the main provider for the family."
Daigneault said Wednesday that he and his partner consider their "commitment ceremony" 10 years ago to be their wedding day. The couple is caring for two school-age children. Daigneault said he has not yet gone to Canada to be married but said he and his partner will make time to do so soon. "I think it's a wonderful thing," Daigneault said from Empire State Pride Agenda's Albany office. "I am very excited. It certainly is going to provide more protection for my family and my two children."