Religious Push For Gay Nups

Leaders from different faiths address hundreds on eve of court arguments

If the judges of the Court of Appeals had heard the testimony of Wilhelmina Perry, 71, at an interfaith gathering for marriage equality on the eve of oral arguments in four same-sex marriage cases in the state’s highest court, it is hard to believe they would not have had their hearts melted. Yet, another speaker at the event said that wasn’t the point.

Addressing hundreds in Congregation B’nai Jeshurun on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Perry told of losing her partner of 30 years in 2002 and what they had to deal with because they could not legally marry.

“Instead of being at peace at the time of death,” Perry said, “I had to present her with legal burdens and documents” to secure the right to make medical and financial decisions. Her partner’s family tried to take her back to Puerto Rico without informing Perry. When her partner died, “I walked the streets for months crying” and saw half her household income disappear as she had no survivor’s right to Social Security. “This isn’t about fun and games,” she said to a standing ovation. “My advocacy is about the rights of same-sex partners to be equally protected.”

Perry, of Riverside Church’s LGBT Maranatha group, was preaching to the choir—literally and figuratively—as more than 20 religious leaders and members of congregations from the East End Temple to the Church of St. Francis Xavier as well as a few secular groups rallied Tuesday night and were serenaded by the Gay Gotham Chorus to counter the religious right’s assertion that faith groups are united in opposition to same-sex marriage. The event was co-sponsored by B’nai Jeshurun and the Empire State Pride Agenda.

“I have no right to try to change your heart,” said the Very Reverend James Kowalski, dean of the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, “but we have to change the law and make people follow the law. We know things can’t be separate but equal.”

While much of the resistance to same-sex marriage, including from political leaders such as Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, a New York Democrat running for reelection this year, is based on an understanding of marriage as a “sacred” institution, Rabbi Felicia Sol of B’nai Jeshurun said, “We don’t seek to violate the separation of synagogue and state or church and state. There is not one religious voice on the issue of gay marriage. We don’t want anyone to speak on behalf of us.”

Sol’s congregation has taken this cause up as one of four major social issues.

Amy Lavine and Ilene Sameth, together 11 years, were joined by Sameth’s 99-year old cousin Beatrice Brodman “who encouraged us to reschedule her birthday party so we could all be here.” Lavine said, “We hope the New York State Court of Appeals has the vision to see that our lives are just as valuable as those of straight citizens.”

Alan Van Capelle, executive director of the Pride Agenda, which organized similar rallies throughout the state on this expectant night, said, “The arguments the judges will hear are not new to us. Tomorrow is the day our community says, ‘Enough!’” He concluded, “This is about right and wrong and tomorrow the rest of the state will find that out.”

Larry and Susan Daniels spoke for their son Bob who has had to move to England to be with his partner who cannot legally immigrate here. “Gays and lesbians deserve all the rights and protections as us,” Larry said. “They are us.”

Holly Lewis, a member of the Graduate Students Organizing Committee at NYU, which is striking in an effort to join the United Auto Workers, read that group’s statement of support, but first said, “I had no idea this crowd was going to be so large and well dressed.”

The UAW won the first domestic partner benefits in the country for their employees at the Village Voice in 1982.

Reverend Luis Barrios, a veteran supporter of LGBT causes, talked about how his Latino United Church of Christ congregation, Iglesia San Romero de Las Americas, came to embrace the issue in 1992 when, in order to promote stronger marriages, it searched for the couple of longest standing in their midst. It turned out to be two men who had been together 48 years, beating the nearest heterosexual couple by 28 years. He noted that one man was Puerto Rican and never learned English and the other was Italian American and never learned Spanish. The congregation across the board appreciated the “commitment and respect they had for each other.”

The participants in Tuesday night’s rally pledged to do things such as meet with their Albany representatives in district meetings, march across the Brooklyn Bridge with Marriage Equality on June 3, and sign up with the Pride Agenda to be notified about rallies the very day the decision comes down from the high court sometime this summer.

The court of course could find a state constitutional right to same-sex marriage, but if it rejects such an argument outright or boots the issue to the Legislature to craft a solution guaranteeing gay couples equal rights, whether in marriage or in some other way, the work required to secure marriage equality will increase exponentially. Eliot Spitzer, the state attorney general and a gay marriage supporter, is the current leader in the race for governor but said any legislative effort in Albany could take a decade, according to Nyack Mayor John Shields, one of the plaintiffs in one of the state’s five marriage lawsuits (only four of which were before the Court of Appeals this week).

On Tuesday evening, Linda Rosenthal, the new Democratic assemblywoman from the Upper West Side, said she thought that estimate was “way too long.”

Should the gay and lesbian community have to fight it out in the Legislature in the wake of an unfavorable or mixed Court of Appeals ruling, the people on the front lines will likely be drawn in large part from those who turned out on Tuesday.