Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos has just announced that the Marriage Equality Bill will get a vote in the Senate. This comes moments after the Senate released proposed language for a “religious exemptions” amendment to the billl, which will allow religious groups and their affiliate businesses legal assurance that they do not have to “solemnize” a same-sex marriage.
The religious exemptions had been the biggest stumbling block in Governor Cuomo’s attempt to get a 32nd senator on board, and the first look we’ve had as to what the law might actually look like.
“This is basically what I expected,” said attorney Rick Bettan upon reviewing the proposed amendment. Bettan is an associate at Boies, Schiller & Flexner LLP, who worked on the federal Proposition 8 trial in California last year. Referring it as a “bakers and florists” amendment, Bettan said, “Others may disagree with me, but on my first reading there is nothing in here to be concerned about. This amendment is ensuring that no one with deeply held religious beliefs about same-sex marriage will have to violate those beliefs.”
Here’s what the actual bill says:
A RELIGIOUS ENTITY…SHALL NOT BE REQUIRED TO PROVIDE SERVICES, ACCOMMODATIONS, ADVANTAGES, FACILITIES, GOODS, OR PRIVILEGES FOR THE SOLEMNIZATION OR CELEBRATION OF A MARRIAGE. ANY SUCH REFUSAL TO PROVIDE SERVICES, ACCOMMODATIONS, ADVANTAGES, FACILITIES, GOODS, OR PRIVILEGES SHALL NOT CREATE ANY CIVIL CLAIM OR CAUSE OF ACTION OR RESULT IN ANY STATE OR LOCAL GOVERNMENT ACTION TO PENALIZE, WITHHOLD BENEFITS, OR DISCRIMINATE AGAINST SUCH RELIGIOUS CORPORATION, BENEVOLENT ORDER, A NOT-FOR-PROFIT EXPLANATION
The language, some would argue, is an invitation to discrimination. The original Marriage Equality Act protected churches and church owned facilities (like the Knights of Columbus) from being sued for refusing to rent their spaces to same-sex couples. The amendment goes further, protecting, as Bettan explains it, bakers and florists who don’t want to sell cookies or lilies to gay couples.
But it’s something that doesn’t concern Bettan, who thinks most “business will be happy to take [same-sex couples’] money” and that civil marriage is about “state actors,” not private business.
From our reading, there is nothing in this amendment about giving state sanctioned agents, like Justices of the Peace, the right to deny a wedding license to a same-sex couple based on their religious beliefs, something opponents had indicated they wanted.
As for how long it took to get this amendment out, “Honestly, I’m surprised it took this long,” Bettan said, adding that “All of that hemming and hawing was probably just a delay tactic.”
Will this make a difference for swing Senators like Grisanti, Lanza and Saland? Who knows. Senator Greg Ball claims these exemptions will not make him vote for the bill, even though he takes credit for their existence. Many anti-marriage equality groups, like the Family Research Council, say no religious exemptions could ever make gay marriage palatable.
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