From impromptu celebrations outside the historic Stonewall Inn to a euphoric
Pride march down Fifth Avenue, the weekend after marriage equality became law in
New York this summer included moments to savor. For at least one person closely
involved with the campaign, though, the victory signaled an immediate start of
"The bill passed on a Friday. I think Saturday I slept and I started on Sunday
morning," said Alphonso David in a recent interview. The gay senior administration
official spoke with The Advocate at
length for the first time about his role in implementing the marriage equality
law, and a massive behind-the-scenes undertaking that finally wound down in
As deputy secretary for civil rights under Gov. Andrew Cuomo, David helped pass
the historic bill in June, playing a lead role in last-minute negotiations over
religious exemptions language. His responsibilities afterward included preparing
for implementation within 30 days with a less glamorous but critical series of
tasks. He and a small team of colleagues from the governor's office reviewed
and modified thousands of forms, met with representatives from every state
agency including New York's vast tangle of public-benefit corporations, and
held online conversations with 1,000 town clerks, all to ensure things went
smoothly when the law took effect in July.
"I would say it was extraordinary," said David about the effort. "We often
talked about the thousands and thousands of rights that same-sex couples were
denied because they could not obtain a marriage license. When you boil it down
to its true essence and you look at all those rights, in many instances they
are tied to a statute or regulation that is then tied to a form or an
instruction. All of these have to be modified and that's rare, a legal status
that implicates so many statutes and regulations."
A former Lambda Legal staff attorney with management credentials and startup experience
from California, David began with a comprehensive review of all state agency
forms that reference marital status. Logical first targets were the department
of health -- which issues marriage certificates in the state outside New York
City -- and the department of taxation and finance, where same-sex couples are
subject to new state tax rules, although DOMA still prohibits federal tax
recognition. New York City maintains its own vital registry for marriage
certificates, and the governor's office worked with city officials on
"We wanted to make sure this law had the impact that we intended," said David.
"Same sex-couples would be treated the same. That means that when they pick up
a form they see no distinction on the form that would suggest that they are a
second-class citizen in New York. That was for me the guiding principle."
For marriage licenses, being "treated the same" meant changing the options
"from the groom" and "from the bride" to the more inclusive "bride, groom or
spouse," and allowing parties to enter two mothers or two fathers for the
parent question. The new forms also present parties the option, but not the
requirement, to indicate their sex, a step designed for statistical purposes
while being sensitive to privacy concerns, particularly for transgender
Officials reviewed marriage license forms from other states, including
Massachusetts, Iowa and Connecticut. But in the end, they produced a unique
form in accordance with the New York law. Clerks were directed to return or
destroy the old forms, with replacement costs built in because marriage license
forms are ordered quarterly.
"We often hear that New York is the bellwether and I think that's true in many
instances and we were mindful of that in modifying these forms," said David.
"We envision that at some points other states may allow same-sex coupes to
marry and will look to New York to see what we did and how we did it."
In addition to the paperwork
changes, the team also worked to inform state agencies about how to put the new
law into practice. Places like the department of civil service, which
administers benefits for the same-sex partners of state employees, and the
Department of Motor Vehicles, which processes name changes, needed to
understand what's new and the etiquette of addressing married couples of the
Compared to most of the bureaucracy, town clerks have received considerable
attention since the marriage equality law took effect. Two clerks opposed on
religious grounds resigned rather than sign licenses for same-sex couples. And
one, Rosemarie Belforti, the town clerk of Ledyard, has refused to marry any
couples rather than sign licenses for same-sex partners. Conservative groups
including the Alliance Defense Fund and the Courage Fund, a new creation, have
rallied around her cause.
David could not immediately confirm whether Belforti took part in the webinar
training for all town clerks hosted by the governor's office about their duties
under the new law. However, he referred to Cuomo's previous statements that
clerks who stepped down made the right choice.
"I understand why it's an interesting issue for a lot of people, but the law is
fairly clear on this," he said. "A clerk has to perform these functions. The
clerk can of course in certain instances assign those duties to someone else.
That's entirely permissible. What is not permissible, however, is to have a
clerk say that they will not perform marriages between same-sex couples but
perform marriages between different-sex couples. That is a violation of the
equal protection clause, as well as New York state law."
Asked what that means for Belforti, who has asserted her right to deputize the
signing of marriage licenses for all couples, David said he could not comment
specifically on the ongoing matter. People For The American Way has threatened
a lawsuit against the clerk and the town unless she steps down, or starts
signing marriage licenses for everyone.
"The law is fairly clear on this point," he said. "The town law as well the
domestic relations law clearly outline what a town clerks' responsibilities are
and when a town clerk could assign those responsibilities to someone else. The
issue here is whether or not someone can discriminate against a group of
people. If you are refusing to perform a function for a specific class of
people, that is discrimination and that violates New York state law. That's
very different where we're talking about deputizing someone else to perform
David said the governor, who spearheaded the legislative campaign for the bill,
was not involved in the day-to-day implementation activities, but he stayed
broadly informed, especially about the marriage license and tax form changes,
and gave final approvals. The team also consulted with advocacy groups from the
New Yorkers United for Marriage coalition, members of which praised David.
"Alphonso is a very through and capable and intelligent government official,"
said Ross Levi, executive director of the Empire State Pride Agenda, who worked
with him on the legislative campaign and implementation. "It certainly helps to
have someone of his caliber watching the implementation of marriage. He very
often is doing the work that isn't the stuff that makes headlines but at the
end of the day is where the rubber hits the road and thus is the work that is
going to make the real difference in people's lives, and he does that work very
Born in Maryland and raised partly in Liberia by his family of civil servants,
David was appointed to his position by Cuomo last year. He previously served as
New York State's Special Deputy Attorney General for Civil Rights and as Deputy
Commissioner at the New York State Division of Human Rights. His entire
background came into play during the marriage equality campaign and afterward,
a once-in-a-lifetime experience that, true to his reputation, he already sounds
intent on advancing.
"This statute and this process was so unique that I think it will be difficult
to replicate, although I have a number of other projects on my plate that I'm
working on, both legislative and policy, that I think will have an impact on
the future and will certainly take up a lot of my time," he said.