Thirteen same-sex couples who sued New York State for denying them marriage licenses lost a round in court Tuesday. State supreme court justice Joseph Teresi ruled that the couples do not have a fundamental right to wed and that their constitutional rights were not violated.
The suit, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of the couples, was one of nine civil and criminal cases filed earlier this year in New York after gay marriage became a high-profile national issue. In October a state judge in Rockland County considering a similar lawsuit ruled against a group of same-sex couples dubbed the "Nyack 10" who were denied marriage licenses. Appeals were promised in both cases.
Advocates on both sides of the issue expect New York's highest court, the court of appeals, to make the ultimate decision on the legality of same-sex marriage in the state. "We believe that once the appeals courts are given the opportunity to see how same-sex couples are harmed when they are denied access to the protections of marriage, they will agree that the state can no longer discriminate in this way," said Donna Lieberman of the New York Civil Liberties Union. There was no immediate comment from the state. Mathew Staver of the conservative legal group Liberty Counsel called the ruling "a great victory for traditional marriage."
A flurry of lawsuits were filed in state courts in the weeks after New Paltz mayor Jason West performed a rapid-fire series of gay weddings on February 27. The state health department says New York's domestic relations law bars the issuance of marriage licenses to same-sex couples. But gay and lesbian couples backed by the ACLU argued that policy violated the state constitution because it denied them equal protection, due process, and freedom of speech protections. Teresi dismissed those arguments, writing that "there is a legitimate state interest in granting marriage licenses only to opposite-sex couples." Plaintiffs in the case include state assembly member Daniel O'Donnell, brother of entertainer Rosie O'Donnell.
While notching two losses in civil cases, gay advocates noted they had success in criminal cases against West and two Unitarian ministers who also performed gay marriages in New Paltz. Town justices in those two cases questioned New York's gay marriage ban as they threw out the charges. Prosecutors are appealing those decisions.