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Opinion: Equal rights for all NY families

Photo Credit: TMS illustration by Paul Tong

Susanne and Carl Richter live in Babylon.


As our representatives in Albany come to the end of the legislative session, they are handling matters of critical fiscal and governmental import. They are also grappling with the civil rights issue of our time. Not sure about that? Just ask yourself: How would you feel if you were legally barred from marrying the person you love?

Our lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender children, friends and neighbors are facing that injustice.

The New York State Assembly has passed same-sex marriage bills three times, but the only time the issue came before the State Senate, in 2009, it was defeated. Five of those who voted "no" -- three Democratic state senators from Brooklyn and Queens, a Republican from the Rochester area and another Republican from the Capital Region -- announced this week that they now support a marriage equality bill.

Polls show a significant majority of voters across Nassau and Suffolk counties support marriage for loving, committed same-sex couples. So why is it that none of Long Island's nine state senators support marriage equality?

Lesbian and gay couples and their families face challenges that heterosexuals never have to think about. They have to take complicated and sometimes costly steps to enjoy just some of the 2,462 federal and state rights and responsibilities that straight married couples can take for granted. Without legal protections, same-sex couples and their families can find themselves on shaky ground.

Imagine this: Your spouse has a medical emergency and is rushed to the hospital. You hurry to be at his side, but are denied access because the emergency room visitor policy is "family members only." Or, you go to school to meet with the teacher of your child, but the teacher says she can only meet with the "legal parent" of the child, your partner. These are the kinds of situations that same-sex couples and their families must think about every day.

We consider ourselves fortunate to belong to a church that is welcoming to all families: the Unitarian Universalist Society of South Suffolk. Through our church, we participate in Pride in the Pulpit, a program that includes hundreds of congregations and leaders of faith, representing many denominations and traditions across the state, all working to build a network of support for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender justice and dignity, and to create welcoming and nurturing spiritual settings for LGBT New Yorkers.

Some religious traditions do not and never will support marriage equality. But it's essential that their leaders understand and acknowledge that marriage equality in New York will not force a change in any religion's marriage policies and rites. It's very simple: This is about protections and responsibilities granted by the state. No church, synagogue, mosque or other religious institution would be forced to perform or condone same-sex marriages.

Our advocacy also has a more personal motivation: We are working to create a society that will allow our lesbian daughter to thrive with all the rights enjoyed by others. Our daughter works, pays taxes and votes. She is a caring individual, someone who is active in our church and gives back to our community.

Our daughter must not be a second-class citizen. She deserves the option of legalizing a loving commitment to a partner through marriage. We need to know that her spouse and her children will have the same legal protections they would have in any other family.

Same-sex marriage opponents claim marriage equality threatens the sanctity of marriage and the family structure, but in fact the opposite is true: It safeguards the rights and responsibilities that support and protect all families. Ensuring equal rights for all families strengthens every family and society itself. That's a goal we should all be working to achieve.