The New York legislature’s vote last Friday night to redefine the family and recognize homosexual marriage will have a number of impacts within and well beyond the Empire State. The vote does not signal an end to the now two-decade fight over the meaning of marriage. A new phase—not an endgame—has begun. Here are five key impacts:
1. The vote continues an adverse trend for marriage law in New York.
Last year the Empire State became the 50th state to repeal a fault-based divorce law. Weakened emphasis on the durability of marriage as a heterosexual institution has helped to undermine the stability of the institution and contributed to the rising incidence of cohabitation and out-of-wedlock births, a phenomenon that is now nearly universal in Western nations.
2. The policy change emanates from a legislature and is reversible by the legislature.
Changes to the meaning of marriage have been initiated by both legislatures and court rulings, but judicial activism has often taken the lead. The California Supreme Court created same-sex marriage in the Golden State, but that decision was reversed by referendum in 2008—the only time a state court ruling imposing same-sex marriage has been overturned by popular vote. Legislatively enacted same-sex marriage was reversed in Maine and the New Hampshire legislature will vote on repealing its same-sex marriage law early next year. Pro-traditional marriage groups vow to take the New York law to referendum, and Minnesota will hold its own referendum on the issue in November 2012. Steps have been taken toward ballot initiatives in Iowa and Indiana as well. The importance of all these votes is elevated by the action in New York.
3. Religious liberty is suffering a death of a thousand cuts, and the collision of religious/ moral conscience and nondiscrimination laws still looms.
The debate in New York came down to complex questions of religious liberty and whether the law would protect religious institutions and individuals from forced participation in and recognition of homosexual marriages. Some lawmakers would like to protect religious institutions from the aftermath of marriage redefinition, but nondiscrimination statutes, even without but especially with marriage/family redefinition laws, hurt religious and moral freedoms.
4. Redefinition of the family is the clear goal of same-sex marriage activists.
It is increasingly clear that the primary purpose of same-sex marriage laws is not to alleviate legal hurdles or provide benefits but to confer social approval on a new understanding of the family. As Democratic State Senator Carl Kruger of Brooklyn admitted before the New York vote, “What we’re about to do is redefine what the American family is. And that’s a good thing.”
5. Marriage is a mega-issue and merits a full-scale national debate in 2012.
The creation of same-sex marriage in New York does not necessarily signal a sea change in the marriage issue nationwide. To date, no popular vote has validated same-sex marriage anywhere in the United States. In contrast, 30 states have enacted constitutional amendments designed to protect marriage. New York is one of the most liberal states in the union. New York does illustrate, however, the potency of political leadership. Governor Andrew Cuomo (D) made the issue a cornerstone of his first year in office. He did not “lead from behind.” The outcome in New York will spur activists on the marriage issue to redouble their efforts to secure national political leadership for their cause.