Mayor announces city pension funds will recognize gay marriages for benefits purposes
In an announcement made public as Gay City News was going to press, Republican Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that New York City’s five public pension funds will recognize the spouses and partners of same-sex marriages sanctioned in other jurisdictions and of Vermont civil unions as though they are legal spouses.
The move will allow couples that include a current or former municipal employee legally wed in Massachusetts or Canada or in a Vermont civil union to receive the same pension benefits, including accidental death payments, as married couples.
Bloomberg’s action follows by one month a similar move by New York State Comptroller Alan Hevesi, a Democrat, with respect to state employees.
New York State and New York City oversee, respectively, the second and third largest public pension systems in the nation. State and municipal employees become, then, the first gay and lesbian New Yorkers to win tangible public benefits from same-sex marriage.
Bloomberg went a step further than Hevesi in calling on the Legislature to confer spousal benefits on couples who are not married, but are domestic partners under the city’s partnership program.
In a written statement, Bloomberg said that two days after Hevesi’s October 13 announcement, he instructed the city’s corporation counsel to explore expanding the definition of spouses under the pension system in this fashion.
“All of our City employees deserve to be treated equally, regardless of their sexual orientation,” the mayor said in the statement.
“This is a step in the right direction,” said Alan Van Capelle, the executive director of the Empire State Pride Agenda (ESPA), the state’s leading lobbying group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) New Yorkers. “Thousands of LGBT families will benefit because pension systems will treat our families the same way they treat every other family.”
Van Capelle, however, challenged Bloomberg to go further.
“While it is important that he is recognizing same-sex marriages for pension system purposes, we would like to see him follow the lead of five other jurisdictions in New York State and recognize same-sex marriages for all purposes,” he said.
Buffalo, Rochester and the nearby community of Brighton, as well as Ithaca and Nyack have all extended comprehensive recognition to same-sex marriages from other jurisdictions. In ESPA’s view, such actions at the municipal level strengthen the precedent for same-sex marriage to be accepted in all forms in New York State, both politically and legally.
When asked what role ESPA played in Bloomberg’s announcement, Joe Tarver, the Pride Agenda communications director, said the group had urged New York City recognition of same-sex marriage on the mayor and his advisers “at every opportunity for more than a year.”
“We are glad to see that Comptroller Hevesi’s action sparked the mayor to take action,” Tarver said.
Christine Quinn, a lesbian member of the City Council from Chelsea, acknowledged the step forward Bloomberg is making, but also noted that the mayor has taken legal action against a law she sponsored that ensures domestic partner benefits for employees of city contractors. “If the mayor really wants to help LGBT families, he will drop his outrageous legal challenge to the Equal Benefits Law,” she told Gay City News. “And until he does, his new found commitment to LGBT families will ring hollow.”
Bloomberg took his action after receiving a legal memorandum from Corporation Counsel Michael A. Cardozo advising that the step was legal under New York state and city law. Cardozo noted that he was going further than Hevesi, who responded narrowly to a state employee’s query about a same-sex marriage performed in Canada, by saying that the city would recognize marriages legally entered into in any state in the U.S. or foreign country and accord spousal status to partners in Vermont civil unions as well.
The conclusions reached by lawyers for both Hevesi and Bloomberg relied, in part, on a March 3 advisory opinion issued by state Attorney Gen. Eliot Spitzer, a Democrat, that under New York law, marriages legally entered into in other jurisdictions are recognized under this state’s laws.
At the time of the Hevesi announcement, Alphonso David, a staff attorney with Lambda Legal, also noted that a state trial judge had reached a similar conclusion to Spitzer’s. In a 2003 state Supreme Court ruling, currently under appeal, a Long Island gay man who entered into a Vermont civil union with his late partner was found to have standing under New York law as a spouse for purposes of suing St. Vincent’s Hospital for alleged wrongful death liability.
Cardozo noted that, in March, he had issued an opinion saying that same-sex marriages could not be solemnized under New York law, but said his new opinion was not in conflict with that finding. Spitzer came to a similar conclusion in his March opinion, but also stated that the law’s denial of same-sex marriage rights raised “important constitutional questions involving the equal protection of the laws.”
Cardozo stated that extending pension benefits to domestic partners registered by New York City would not be possible unless Bloomberg won the state law change he is proposing.