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Civil action urged against NY gay marriage

ALBANY -- Well-funded national groups that pursue freedom of religion and free speech cases already are soliciting New Yorkers who say their civil rights will be trampled by the new right of gay couples to marry, opening another front in the ongoing contest over same-sex marriage.

It may be a town clerk who chooses to resign rather than issue licenses to gay couples against their own beliefs, or a disc jockey who refuses to play music at a gay couple's reception and is sued.

"It's a very well-founded concern," said Holly Carmichael of the Alliance Defense Fund, an Arizona-based firm that presses faith-based cases in court nationwide. "It conflicts with fundamental American religious freedoms."

New York became the sixth and largest state to allow gay marriage last month, providing fresh energy to the national drive for same-sex weddings. The law takes effect at 12:01 a.m. Sunday, and couples already have planned ceremonies across the state.

The state constitution is silent on marriage, which eliminates the best chance of a temporary restraining order blocking gay weddings from happening while the law's constitutionality is tested. That leaves civil action as the most likely route for opponents. For that, a New Yorker will have to show personal or professional harm because they followed their beliefs -- and exercised their own civil rights -- by refusing to serve gay couples.

Some opponents, including the Alliance Defense Fund, argue the gay marriage law conflicts with New York's own Human Rights Law and Domestic Relations Law, which protect workers such as town clerks from acting in conflict with their "sincerely held religious observance or practice."

The group is providing a letter for clerks to avoid issuing gay marriage licenses, citing executive law and a 1996 court ruling that it says protects them. The Alliance Defense Fund also is recruiting potentially aggrieved parties.

Alicia Ouelette, a professor at Albany Law School, said the gay marriage statute doesn't weaken existing anti-discrimination laws.

"I don't think there is any substance to those challenges, but anyone can bring a lawsuit," she said. "There is just not a good legal argument that you have the right to discriminate."

Clifton McLaughlin, a Christian Jamaican immigrant who provides music for wedding receptions through his Bronx company, said he won't serve same-sex couples because he opposes it on religious grounds, even if it means his business gets hurt or he gets sued. "It's a right we have in this country, the Constitution and freedom of speech, " he said.

State & Region