The Meaning in This Week’s Marriage Win

Last week’s breathtaking gay marriage ruling by Manhattan state Supreme Court Justice Doris Ling-Cohan was inevitably going to be reviewed by the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals.

That fact has to be acknowledged at the top in any coherent analysis of the political events that have transpired since last Friday.

Recognizing that the opinion was going to be appealed is not the same as endorsing the decision by Mayor Michael Bloomberg to mount that appeal.

After a long period of evasion by the mayor on the question of same-sex marriage, Bloomberg came forward on Saturday with a torrent of opinions on the matter. He supports the right of same-sex couples to marry. He thinks the best place to resolve the issue is in the Legislature, not the courts. He believes the issue must be appealed so that gay and lesbian couples don’t get married in the city only to have their marriages later thrown out by a higher court. The mayor wants the case fast-tracked to the Court of Appeals to bring finality to the matter as soon as possible. And he “hope[s] the Court of Appeals will embrace the goals laid out in [Ling-Cohan’s] decision.”


The mayor’s office declined this week to respond to the obvious question about the inconsistencies among all of those perspectives, never mind the clear conflict between the mayor’s “hope” articulated at the Human Rights Dinner at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel Saturday and the statement issued Monday by the city Law Department, which answers to Bloomberg, debunking Ling-Cohan’s constitutional analysis.

Bloomberg’s clumsy articulation of conflicting ideas is of a piece with his treatment of gay issues throughout his tenure as mayor. While running for election in 2001, he told a group of gay journalists, including this reporter, that he would support a bill to require contractors doing business with the city to offer the domestic partners of their employees the same benefits given to the spouses of their workers. He went so far as to brag that he would sit down with New York’s Roman Catholic archbishop to insist that religious organizations doing city work not be exempted.

But just days later, he pivoted, stating that the objections of religious organizations must be respected in such legislation. By the time City Councilwoman Christine Quinn introduced the bill, Bloomberg had identified free-market objections based on the city’s need to find the best price for services. After his veto of the legislation was overridden last year, the mayor took the law to court, now claiming that it is a legislative encroachment on the power of New York City’s executive.

Given that history, it is fair to ask which of the perspectives Bloomberg voiced on gay marriage Saturday night is the one he will be willing to stick with. He pledged that if the marriage ruling is overturned in the Court of Appeals, he would work alongside the gay and lesbian community to win approval of a gay marriage law in Albany. The mayor has not proven himself particularly adept at lobbying in the state capital. What evidence can he provide about his commitment to stay the course on what promises to be a difficult legislative battle pitting the gay community against the leadership of his own party?

If the mayor really believes in the findings Judge Ling-Cohan made in her ruling, he could comfortably have taken sides with the plaintiff couples, confident that the decision would nevertheless have received the appellate consideration he rightly felt it merited. The judge ordered that the ruling be sent to Attorney Gen. Eliot Spitzer, and even though the Democrat immediately said he had no interest in joining the case now, the state clearly has the right to enter this case.

Politically, it is inconceivable that Gov. George Pataki would have allowed this ruling to stand if both the mayor and the attorney general took a pass on an appeal. When Pataki felt that Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson was unwilling to pursue the death penalty, he did not flinch from shoving the duly elected prosecutor aside.

This case would have been appealed. The mayor could have brought the weight of the city of New York down on the side of gay marriage rights in that appeal.

As Bloomberg prepared to deliver his overly nuanced message Saturday night, the Human Rights Campaign, his dinner hosts, took it upon themselves to “laud the mayor’s historic support for equal marriage rights.”

Councilwoman Quinn got it just about exactly right when she said the group “fundamentally misunderstood what the mayor said today.”

HRC once before entered the New York political fray to disastrous results, with its 1998 endorsement of Republican Sen. Alfonse D’Amato for re-election. Apparently, they haven’t learned their lesson.