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What Happened Next in New York

What Happened Next in New York

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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 more work.

"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 late September.

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 implementation.

"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 applicants.

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 same sex.

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 certain functions."

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 well."

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.
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