NY gay-marriage talks hinge on religious rights

By Michael Hill AP

June 22, 2011 / contracostatimes.com

ALBANY, N.Y.—Will the Knights of Columbus be required to open their halls for gay weddings if New York lawmakers legalize same-sex marriage? Will Catholic adoption agencies be forced to choose between placing children with gay married couples or leaving the business?

As New York moves closer to a vote on legislation that would make it the sixth and largest state where same-sex marriage is allowed, some Republicans are demanding stronger legal protections for religious organizations that object to the practice.

Many states that offer gay marriage or civil unions have some religious exemptions. But in some places, Catholic adoption agencies shut down and at least one religious organization lost its tax-exempt status.

Supporters of gay marriage say there are already adequate protections in New York law, and they have suggested the GOP objections are just a smoke screen. But religious leaders say the fears are genuine.

"The stakes are huge," said Ed Mechmann, an attorney and assistant director of the family life office at the Archdiocese of New York. "I think this could have a catastrophic effect on our agencies."

The New York bill introduced by Gov. Andrew Cuomo would protect clergy who refuse to perform weddings for gay couples, a provision common in other states with gay marriage. A broader concern was protecting religious groups from discrimination charges if they refuse to provide their facilities or services.

Negotiators for Cuomo and the lawmakers met behind closed doors, so it was not clear where talks stood Wednesday afternoon, hours before a possible floor vote. But the Catholic establishment in New York, which opposes the bill, was worried that its adoption agencies might close down.

Three Catholic dioceses in Illinois recently announced that they would end their state-funded adoption and foster-care program because of a civil union law that took effect June 1. Catholic Charities had been allowed to refer unmarried or gay couples to other agencies, but lawmakers did not pass an amendment exempting religious groups.

The case mirrors an earlier one in Massachusetts, which in 2004 became the first state to allow gay marriage. Catholic Charities of Boston announced in 2006 it was getting out of the adoption business rather than comply with the state law. And in Washington, D.C., Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington shut down its foster care and public adoption program last year rather than serve same-sex families.

Currently, New York does not allow state-supervised, private adoption and foster care agencies to reject applicants solely on the basis of homosexuality. However, Mechmann noted that New York law gives adoption agencies discretion to consider the best interest of the child and that Catholic agencies believe it is in a child's best interest to be placed with a married couple.

Without an explicit exemption in a New York gay marriage law, Catholic and other faith-based adoption agencies here could face the same quandary as their counterparts in some other states, Mechmann said.

Negotiators in Albany also were seeking to protect religious groups from discrimination charges if they refuse to provide their facilities or services. Some opponents of the bill were worried about its effect on groups like the Knights of Columbus or on marriage counselors. One lawmaker sought protection for individuals and businesses such as caterers, but they are not part of the negotiations.

Mechmann is concerned that the current bill does not go far enough to protect a hall from being considered a public accommodation if the group that operates it rents it out for weddings and events. He said a Methodist group in New Jersey saw its state property tax exemption revoked after it would not let a lesbian couple use its beachside pavilion for their civil union ceremony.

Vermont's law has an exemption that says churches are not bound to rent their halls or open their facilities for same-sex weddings if the church has religious objections to same-sex marriage.

There are also fears that Catholic groups—huge providers of social services in many communities—could lose their government contracts if they are found to have discriminated against gay couples.

Bill Banuchi, who provides Christian marriage and family counseling and seminars through his Marriage and Family Savers Institute in Newburgh, N.Y., said he wouldn't be protected by any religious exemptions because his business is considered a tax-exempt, not-for-profit educational charity, not a religious institution.

"We have certain principles and ethical guidelines we'd have to compromise," Banuchi said Wednesday. "We would be in violation of the law and open to being sued for discrimination, and we could lose our tax-exempt status if we refused to counsel couples according to their value system. Our value system is that the only authentic marriage is between a male and a female."

But bill proponents say adequate protections already exist in New York.

"What's going on here is an effort to make a mountain out of a mole hill," said Susan Sommer, director of constitutional litigation for Lambda Legal, a New York-based gay rights organization. "There has been a notable absence of conflict anywhere in the country pitting marriage rights or civil union rights against religious objections."

Sommer said New York law bars florists, caterers or other service providers from refusing to serve customers based on their sexual orientation.

She added that the Knights of Columbus and other private "benevolent organizations" already can legally choose to keep their doors closed to gay couples, rights reiterated in the bill working its way through the Legislature.

"The Knight of Columbus does not have to rent its catering hall to anybody it doesn't want to," Sommer said.


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