Equal Benefits Bill Set to Pass May 5

The New York City Council Equal Benefits Bill (EBB), requiring municipal contractors to treat domestic partners of their employees as they do spouses, was sailing smoothly toward passage last Friday. The Contracts Committee, chaired by Councilmember Robert Jackson (D-Upper Manhattan), voted unanimously to forward the measure to the full Council, where 39 out of 51 members are sponsors, for a vote this week.

But, now the bill will not be voted on until May 5 due to modifications designed to accommodate last minute objections raised by religious contractors, not all of whom are yet satisfied with the amendments being offered. Even as some religious critics are holding out, Councilmember Christine Quinn (D-Chelsea), an out lesbian who is the chief sponsor of Intro 271, insisted that, even with the amendments, the domestic partners of all those who work for city contractors will be covered if the law is passed.

It is significant to note that religious opponents of the legislation pressed for modifications this week even though the version of the EBB approved in committee last week already aimed to accommodate their concerns. In language crafted by Quinn, contractors were offered an alternative to offering their employees domestic partner benefits per se by instead allowing them to grant employees the right to cover one additional household member under his or her benefit plan. This type of language was successfully employed in San Francisco to neutralize the opposition of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese there. The San Francisco Archdiocese, in fact, is the only city contractor there that has made use of the provision.

The Quinn language, however, did not go far enough for Rabbi David Zwiebel, executive vice president for government and public affairs and general counsel for Agudath Israel of America, a large Orthodox Jewish provider of social services under contracts with the city. Zwiebel was the only witness at the bill’s final hearing on April 17 before Jackson’s committee, where he testified that the measure as written might force his organization “to compromise on issues of faith,” given their objections to extra-marital sexual relationships. He asked the committee to delay further action until his group and others could work out language that would offer them the kind of religious exemption that has been incorporated into city and state human rights laws.

Under New York State and City human rights laws, religious groups do enjoy some exemptions, though the carve-outs are not blanket. In the city ordinance, for example, religious groups can give preference to members of their own denomination and can also make distinctions “calculated by such organization to promote the religious principles for which it is established or maintained.” Accordingly, the Catholic Church can choose to ordain only women, but in hiring a secretary can not discriminate against Latinos or gays, even if a Catholic job applicant gets preference.

After Jackson’s committee decided to move the legislation forward, Councilmember Simcha Felder, a Brooklyn Democrat, threatened to introduce an amendment at the time of the final Council vote originally scheduled for this Wednesday that would provide a broad religious exemption from the bill. Quinn was confident that she had the votes to beat back the Felder amendment, but was less certain that she could hold two thirds of the Council to overturn an anticipated veto by Republican Mayor Michael Bloomberg if she appeared unwilling to work on a compromise.

Bloomberg has gone from supporting the Equal Benefits Bill at the outset of his mayoral campaign in 2001 to saying it might require a religious “carve out” during the campaign to forceful opposition to the bill as both illegal under state law and a usurpation of his powers as mayor––assertions hotly disputed by the Council’s legal staff.

The Empire State Pride Agenda issued an alert late Monday saying the group “opposes [Felder’s] religious carve-out amendment and will not support the Equal Benefits Bill if it is modified in this way.”

Councilmember Bill DiBlasio, a Brooklyn Democrat, who had infuriated some advocates by not originally sponsoring the bill, signed on as one in the wake of Felder’s move and pledged to work with his colleagues to defeat his amendment.

Quinn, who has coordinated Council sponsors, an Equal Benefits Coalition made up of community supporters, and meetings with potential opponents for more than a year now, met again with Zwiebel in an attempt to address his concerns. By Tuesday, she had come up with a proposal to offer the household member option only to religious contractors, rather than all contractors. According to Zwiebel, under the amended version, “there is no obligation on the part of an employee to disclose the nature of the household relationship with the employee.”

Focusing the household member option only on religious contractors may allow Zwiebel to tell his constituents that he was successful in winning a religious exemption of sorts.

Perhaps mindful of that spin, Quinn scrambled to get lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and other advocates on board on a conference call late Tuesday. The group agreed with Quinn that the change had no substantive negative effect on the bill’s achievements. Tom Smith, president of Stonewall Democrats, who was not on the call, said, “It is a ceremonial nod to the religious faction of the Council which does exist and does not take away any of the benefits that the sponsors were looking for, so I believe it should go forward.”

Smith added, “I personally support a bill that would require all contractors to cover any one other household member.” Brooklyn Democrat Kendall Stewart had staked out the same position on Jackson’s is committee several times in hearings, saying that many employees are in care-giving relationships with household members. Quinn emphasized that the current effort is aimed at covering domestic partners, but that Stewart’s idea merited attention at a later date.

By Wednesday, Quinn was confident that the bill was on track for passage with a veto-proof majority on May 5.

“I have spoken to almost every councilmember and they’re glad that an accommodation was made that addresses the needs of some religious groups and that does not relieve the obligation to provide domestic partner benefits to their employees,” she told Gay City News. She said that most members were concerned that “groups not be allowed to discriminate against domestic partners versus spouses. The bill clearly prohibits any kind of discrimination.”

After making the changes, Quinn asked for and received a commitment from Felder not to seek to amend the bill on the floor.

Zwiebel said that he believes that Quinn’s changes “strengthen the legislation” because the “household member” option is “not universally available, but only to those who really need it.” He said, “It reaffirms the longstanding tradition in New York that religious contractors who have conflicts with certain anti-discrimination provisions where they create a conflict with the tenets of the organization, that there ought to be some accommodation.”

Agudath Israel will still oppose the bill because it objects to domestic partnerships in general, “but we would not necessarily find it something that we would rally the troops about,” Zwiebel said.

Catholic Charities, another multimillion-dollar contractor with the city, did not testify against the bill, but the Catholic Conference, representing bishops statewide, tried activate their supporters against it. Joe Zwilling, spokesperson for the Archdiocese of New York, told Gay City News, “What we asked for at a minimum was a religious exemption so that our religious beliefs would not be compromised.”

Zwilling said the archdiocese does not believe that what Quinn worked out with Agudath Israel is “adequate.” When asked how the Catholic Archdiocese of San Francisco could comply with the law there and the Archdiocese here could not, Zwilling said, “I do not speak for the Archdiocese of San Francisco.”

Will the Archdiocese of New York drop its city contracts or sue if the bill is enacted as the Salvation Army did in San Francisco?

“We will address that if and when it goes into effect,” Zwilling said.

Quinn offered to meet yet again with representatives of Catholic Charities “to help them see that this is a fair accommodation that allows them to comply without offending their religious perspective. The goal of that dialogue is the hope that we will be able to prevent court challenges.”

Many religious groups have actively campaigned for the bill, including the Episcopal Diocese of New York, which already offers domestic partner benefits to its employees.

Bloomberg’s press office did not return calls asking whether the changes in the Equal Benefits Bill affected his opposition to it. Quinn said that Speaker Gifford Miller (D-East Side) has assured her that the Council will override an expected veto. She said that if community members wanted to help with the bill between now and May 5, they should put pressure on the mayor’s office. Bloomberg is likely to mount a legal challenge to the bill in court.

A similar bill in Portland, Maine was struck down, but only in part, when challenged by Catholic Charities. A federal court said that the insurance provisions were unenforceable because in the case of Catholic Charities they were governed by federal ERISA law, but that the group could be compelled to provide such domestic partner benefits as bereavement leave.

A highly placed source in the New York City Council told Gay City News that the Maine case was made up of issues “distinguishable” from the New York law. “I am confident that we can withstand a legal challenge,” the source said.

The San Francisco law has withstood several significant legal challenges largely in tact.

In setting out his case for the bill in committee, committee chair Jackson said in carefully crafted language, “The City of New York here acts in its proprietary capacity as a market participant seeking the best value for its dollar,” noting that expanding access to health care for employees of city contractors leads to better health overall. “On purely economic grounds, this is of great benefit to the city.” He noted that the bill enjoyed the support of both the state and city comptrollers.

Quinn spoke in the hearing of Leslie Thrope, who worked for a city contractor but was denied benefits for her domestic partner, Dominique Ghossein. When her partner died, Thrope was denied bereavement leave. The bill is named in honor of Dominique.

“The city will no longer be complicit in extending that pain,” Quinn said

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