By MICHAEL GORMLEY, Associated Press
ALBANY, N.Y. -- Same-sex marriages legally performed elsewhere will be recognized in New York in response to a state court ruling this year, Gov. David Paterson's spokeswoman said Wednesday.
State agencies, including those governing insurance and health care, must immediately change policies and regulations to make sure "spouse," "husband" and "wife" are clearly understood to include gay couples, according to a memo sent earlier this month from the governor's counsel.
Gay marriage is not legal in New York, and the state's highest court, the Court of Appeals, has said it can only be legalized by the Legislature. But the memo, based on a Feb. 1 New York Appellate Division court ruling, would recognize the marriages of New Yorkers who are legally wed elsewhere.
The appellate judges determined that there is no legal impediment in New York to the recognition of a same-sex marriage. The state Legislature "may decide to prohibit the recognition of same-sex marriages solemnized abroad," the ruling said. "Until it does so, however, such marriages are entitled to recognition in New York."
Massachusetts is currently the only U.S. state that recognizes same-sex marriage, but its residency requirements would bar New Yorkers from marrying there.
New York residents could instead flock to California, where gay couples will be able to wed beginning June 17 - unless that state's Supreme Court decides to stay its own ruling. Upon their return home, in the eyes of the state, their unions would be no different from those of their heterosexual neighbors.
Gay couples could also travel outside the country to marry in Canada, for example.
Paterson spokeswoman Erin Duggan said the May 14 memo is intended to guide the actions of state agencies. Agencies have until June 30 to report back to the governor's counsel on how, specifically, the directive will change existing state benefits and services for gay couples.
The memo states that failure to include gay marriages in the dispensing of state services such as health care benefits could violate state human rights law. The agencies could face sanctions for any violations, the memo warns.
The agency changes can be instituted through internal memos or changes in regulations and would not require legislative action, Paterson counsel David Nocenti said in the memo, which was first reported by The New York Times.
The February appellate decision involved the case of a woman whose female partner was denied health benefits by her employer even though she had been legally married in Canada.
Gay rights advocates have sought recognition for gay marriages so couples could share family health care plans, receive tax breaks by filing jointly, enjoy stronger adoption rights, and inherit property. Most of these advocates rejected civil unions, thought to be a compromise, because the unions lacked the legal protections of marriage.
Mike Groll / AP Photo
New York Gov. David Paterson greets school children who toured the state Capitol in Albany, N.Y., Tuesday, May 27, 2008. Paterson, who became governor on March 17, uses words like "frightening" and "overwhelming" to describe the challenges of being the nation's only blind governor. But he also speaks with pride about how his unlikely ascension has taught him to embrace his disability and may help others be more comfortable with theirs. He rose from the lieutenant governor's office when Gov. Eliot Spitzer resigned amid a prostitution scandal.