Friday, September 14, 2007

City & Region in NY: Same-sex partners get rights on pensions

City & Region: Same-sex partners get rights on pensions

Same-sex partners get rights on pensions
State benefits applyif they are married
By Tom Precious - NEWS ALBANY BUREAUUpdated: 09/13/07 9:51 AMALBANY — The married, samesex partners of state and local government workers across New York now will be eligible for benefits from the state and local government pension system.
State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli said Wednesday that a state court judge’s ruling this week tossing out a lawsuit by a conservative group clears the way for him to expand the pension benefits to samesex marriages performed in any jurisdiction that has legalized the unions.
“This is a great day for New Yorkers who believe in fairness and equality,” DiNapoli said.
The $150 billion pension system, of which DiNapoli is the sole trustee, has more than 1 million members, including tens of thousands in state, village, city and county jobs throughout Western New York.
“What we want is not a special privilege. It’s just the same thing as all married people have,” said Roseanne Fulcher, an Erie County Community College instructor who in 2004 got married in Canada to her longtime partner.
In 2004, the pension fund said it would provide benefits such as accidental death and cost-of-living retirement adjustments to same-sex partners of government employees legally married in Canada.
However, the Alliance Defense Fund, a group based in Scottsdale, Ariz., sued in state court to halt the practice. This week, acting State Supreme Court Judge Thomas McNamara dismissed the lawsuit, saying the practice by the comptroller is “consistent” with New York law of recognizing marriages performed in other jurisdictions.
“Under this theory, the laws of other countries and other states now become the laws of New York, circumventing the legislative process and creating a situation where same-sex marriages are recognized in New York without the legislative process,” said Brian Raum, a spokesman for the conservative organization.
Raum also said the judge’s decision will be appealed.
“This particular case isn’t about voicing opposition to same-sex marriage in general. It’s about ensuring state officials don’t exceed their constitutional authority and circumvent the will of the people and the legislative process,” he said.
For gay rights groups, the judge’s decision and DiNapoli’s move Wednesday are a victory that provides additional benefits for same-sex marriage partners. The DiNapoli decision affects only pension benefits, and only for those enrolled in the New York State and Local Retirement System, which covers everyone from workers in city, town and village governments to state government workers and retirees.
Besides Canada, same-sex marriages have been legalized in Massachusetts, Belgium, Spain, and South Africa. Gay couples from New York cannot go to Massachusetts to get married, but a couple already married in Massachusetts and relocating to New York would be covered by the new pension policy.
Gay rights advocates view the DiNapoli decision as a step toward getting same-sex marriage legalized in New York. The Assembly approved a same-sex marriage bill earlier this year while the issue has not been taken up in the Senate.
“I hope this sends a really strong signal to the New York State Senate that fairness is important and that our relationships, same-sex couple relationships, are as valid as anyone else,” said Bruce Kogan, a gay Buffalo resident who retired recently from the state’s crime victims board.
The Arizona group that challenged the comptroller’s pension decision argued, in part, that the policy went against a 2006 decision by the state Court of Appeals, which said that the state’s current ban on same-sex marriages is not unconstitutional.
Gay rights groups and DiNapoli, however, argue that the ruling did not apply to how the pension fund sets benefits for same-sex couples married outside of New York.
McNamara said the state has long recognized marriages performed elsewhere, “even if it could not have been lawfully entered in this state.”
The only two exceptions specifically in state law are marriages involving polygamy or incest, the judge said.

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