[Editor Note: I gave a call to New York law firm Belair & Evans to confirm that the comment to my post about Eastchester, NY revoking domestic partner benefits (and a prior "memo" document I received via email) is in fact from Raymond W. Belair. Because of the length of my response, I post it here instead of in comments]
Raymond W. Belair’s Emailed Memo
Mr. Belair responded to the end of my blog entry, where I write:
“Mr. Belair is right about one thing – marriage is important in our society. What I don’t understand is that two gay people in a loving, devoted relationship want to publicly acknowledge their commitment – and Mr. Belair wants to take that away.”
I will mainly address Mr. Belair’s “memo” to me because it is more comprehensive than his blog comment.
Mr. Belair starts the memo saying, “Eastchester’s repeal of the Same Sex Domestic Partner’s Law (SSDPL) should be seen in context” – and then alleges the following (I’ve summarized and broken it down into key points with my comments ([HW]) interspersed – my general argument follows):
[Belair] The domestic partner benefit was a political payoff to the homosexual lobby, and was not genuinely requested by Eastchester municipal union workers.
[HW] Without knowing these inside facts, I cannot judge them, but however politically motivated it may have been, that does not invalidate the argument that two gay people in a loving, devoted relationship should be able to publicly acknowledge their commitment and receive the benefits of this public commitment or marriage.
[Belair] “Despite strenuous opposition, the benefit was passed with less deliberation than is usually accorded the placement of a stop sign…. After the dust settled many Eastchester taxpayers concluded they had been involuntarily conscripted onto the wrong side of the culture wars.”
[HW] While I object to the “culture war” description, if the normal public process was circumvented, it should not have been, and I understand people’s anger. However, it does not change the principle that two loving, devoted people seeking public recognition of their commitment should receive the same benefits as any other married couple. A bad (or even illegal) process should not cause people not involved in illegal actions to be denied basic civil rights.
[Belair] There was no prior claim of discrimination to motivate the creation of the benefit.
[HW] None was necessary. It is a question of universal civil rights and the interest of the state in fostering social stability through marriage. Notably one person ended up receiving the benefits – or two (see 1/20/05) – so it appears the prior discrimination (no benefits for domestic partners) prevented them (and perhaps others who rejected jobs in Eastchester) from getting what they otherwise would have sought.
[Belair] “The benefit was written to effectively exclude unmarried persons living together, whether a man and a woman or persons of the same sex, unless they were homosexuals.”
[HW] The key to the argument is “public recognition of a commitment” – whether a religious marriage, civil marriage, common law marriage or civil union. Any two people living together are not necessarily “committed” and do not necessarily seek “public recognition” and so do not qualify.
[Belair] “The Eastchester police recently voted unanimously to accept the new contract, without the controversial benefit. The unions overwhelmingly approved.”
[HW] This is unfortunate and they made the wrong decision based on a universal principle. I do note, however, that they did preserve the benefits for those already receiving them and for an additional short period of time to cover any current workers seeking to get them.
[Belair] “Now there arises a falsetto chorus about rights, discrimination and inequality that was never heard in support of the benefit when originally passed.”
[HW] It is a pity if principled arguments were not made, they are the right arguments.
[Belair] “Government properly has no interest in strictly personal relationships. But marriage is not strictly personal. During hearings on the Defense of Marriage Act(DOMA), Congress recognized ‘Society has an interest in protecting the institution of marriage…because it has an interest in responsible procreation and childrearing…it is society’s way of signaling to would-be parents that their long term relationship is important-a public concern, not merely a private affair.’”
[HW] I wholeheartedly agree that “marriage is not strictly personal” and is a relationship where government has an interest. Congress and President Bill Clinton have misunderstood that interest as applied to gay people, and they were wrong to pass DOMA into law. While some have argued about DOMA’s legality and application, my argument is that it is wrong to deny people civil rights based on sexual orientation.
[Click below to read more on A Discussion of Gay Marriage]
A Discussion of Gay Marriage
Why does Mr. Belair’s argument about gay marriage not make sense to me? It’s because his real aversion, whatever it may be, goes unstated – and in fact he professes not to care about it, as when he states in his blog comment:
“You professed difficulty in understanding how I could be opposed to two people loving each other. I am not so oppsed [sic], and no one I know is. I don’t see how anyone could care in the least about how two people choose to conduct themselves. It is only when they attempt to hijack the institution of marriage and its benefits that we object.”
How can expanding marriage to include more loving, devoted couples be an “attempt to hijack” it? I am reminded of a Jon Stewart joke,
“I don’t want to marry another man.”
(he pauses, as he pretends to be hearing a voice in the ear-piece)
“What? You mean… it’s not mandatory?”
“Oh. So then what’s the worry?”
Gay marriage and heterosexual marriage are not a zero sum game. Heterosexuals can and will marry the opposite gender when gay marriage is legalized – it is unlikely to affect their intentions at all. If gay marriage were so destructive you might expect Vermont, which introduced gay civil unions in July 2000 to have experienced a spike in it’s divorce rate – instead Vermont’s 2001 divorce rate (the most recent I could find) is equal to the U.S. average – and 0.8 people/thousand less than it was in 1995, when Vermont’s rate was 0.4 higher than the U.S. average without Vermont’s civil union law. Notably Vermont’s 2001 rate was less than conservative states like Alabama (1.3 less), Mississippi (1.4 less) and Wyoming (2.1 less) – and neighboring state New Hampshire was higher too (Vermont was 1.0 less) – suggesting little dramatic impact or correlation. While Vermont’s marriage rate went down in 2001 (from 1995) – it had also gone down from 1990 to 1995 without civil unions – and went down less, year to year for all three years, than South Carolina, which now has a lower marriage rate than Vermont (from SC marriages being up 5.0 per thousand in 1990, to Vermont being up 0.6 in 2001). Vermont’s 2001 marriage rate was 1.6 per thousand higher than the U.S. average. There just doesn’t seem to be any correlation.
How do we restrict marriage other than for gay people? We mainly restrict it by age, familial relationship (close relatives cannot marry), and residency (it varies state to state). But as conservative commentator Andrew Sullivan points out
“The Constitution guarantees the right to marry to murderers, to prisoners, to people with a history of neglecting their children, to people who have remarried 10 times, to O.J. Simpson, to Elizabeth Taylor. If all these people have a fundamental civil right to marry, as I think they do, [gay people] do too.”
Mr. Belair’s objection seems to ultimately be an objection to gays, as evidenced by Belair’s objection to the 2002 passing of New York’s Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act (SONDA) into law which, according to the Review Press, “essentially added the words ‘sexual orientation’ to the state’s existing human rights and education laws.” New York’s laws previously prohibited discrimination based only on race, sex, creed, color, national origin, disability, age and marital status. The Review Press quoted Belair,
“‘I think the passing of this bill is a sad sign of the times,’ said Bronxville resident Raymond W. Belair of the Family First Organization, whose mission is to preserve and protect the family and traditional marriage as it is now defined in New York State.
According to Belair, SONDA is a victory for a movement that was designed to incrementally chip away at traditional marriage. Belair and his supporters are concerned about the future of the institution and worry that teaching alternative lifestyles in the schools will cause parents, who object to alternative lifestyles, to be accused of illegal acts (bordering on hate crimes) if SONDA is carried out to its logical legal extension.”
If Mr. Belair is sincere in his concern for parental control raising children – why does he not advocate getting rid of the protection for gender? What of parents, perhaps out of sincere conviction, who discriminate against their children of one gender or another – such as believing girls and women should not be ‘too educated’ – of which there are plenty of historical examples? Why not “creed” too? What of the dangers to parental actions in a case where a fundamentalist Protestant or Catholic has a child professing the opposite faith? The disabled? Adopted children from other races/countries? Surely there isn’t a single example of a protected class listed where discrimination has not occurred in childrearing or other venues. That’s why they are “protected classes.” As Yvette Christofilis, executive director of The LOFT, a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community center serving Westchester County says so clearly about the SONDA law, “These are not special rights no matter what they (those opposed to the law) say. How can anyone say that preventing verbal and physical abuse against people is a bad thing?”
Does government have a right to interfere with childrearing to protect children? In Mr. Belair’s memo to me, he quotes DOMA congressional hearings, “Society has an interest in … childrearing.” I agree. It seems Mr. Belair does too, except when it comes to protecting gays from discrimination.
Mr. Belair and the organization Family First that he represents, seek to “preserve and protect the family and traditional marriage as it is now defined in New York State.” I support them in this goal – and hope they will work with me on real reforms that will really help families, instead of symbolic discriminatory gestures that help no one. I hope they will join me in supporting a living wage so that traditional families can afford food, clothing and shelter – and spend time together, instead of working extra jobs to make ends meet. I hope that they will support national healthcare to protect the traditional family from illness, and to protect them from destitution should an illness come that would bankrupt them in today’s healthcare system. I’m a big supporter of traditional marriage for those who seek it – and would love to have affordable, quality childcare available for those who need it to prevent one of the major stresses on family life, worry over who is caring for the children. I want retirement security for traditional families, including guaranteed Social Security benefits, for parents when they retire – and for their kids when they retire. I want the kids from traditional families to go to great public schools – and college too!
While I’m with Belair and Family First (I hope), wanting traditional families in New York State to enjoy all these benefits – I go further in hoping that all traditional families in America, including mine, will enjoy them. And I go still further than Belair and Family First in wanting all American families to enjoy these benefits. Even the gay ones. It’s the moral thing to do – it’s the American thing to do.