Saturday, December 05, 2009

A Republican legislator for civil rites explains her position

"Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity." -Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

While 57 percent of New York's legislators as well as the governor supported a marriage equality bill that 51 percent of New York's citizens support, unfortunately the vote was not distributed in such a way for the bill to pass.

In debate on the senate floor, Democratic Sen. Ruben Diaz expressed his opposition stating that his religion wouldn't permit him to support the bill. Hearing his remarks, I was left to wonder if Sen. Diaz's religion permits him any independent thought. I try to be respectful of people of faith and their beliefs, provided they don't use their faith as an excuse for their inability to open their minds or more generally for inhumanity toward others.

If gay marriage opponents had any substantive reasons for their opposition -- and by this I don't mean reasons I'd necessarily agree with but a coherent, rational line of argument anchored in what the law is supposed to be based on -- then I might have a little more respect for the opposition. I just haven't seen anything resembling a legitimate case put forward. The Bible says wives who don't obey their husbands should be stoned to death. The legislator who tried to enact that legal change would no doubt be stoned himself.

Only 5 of the 69 Republicans in the legislature supported the equal rites bill but one who did was my assemblywoman Teresa Sayward. When the state Assembly debated the civil rites bill in 2007, Sayward stunned observers by giving an impassioned speech in favor of marriage equality, citing her experience as the mother of a gay son. Today, North Country Public Radio aired an interview with Assemblywoman Sayward on the topic.

Many critics of marriage equality say that they support civil unions for gays, but just not marriage. An April poll showed that only 19 percent of New Yorkers opposed any form of legal recognition to gay couples. So the position of "no to gay marriage but yes to civil unions" people would seem mostly semantic.

But the difference is not semantic. No civil unions law in the country provides rights identical in every way except name to marriage. Nor am I aware of any civil unions bill in the New York legislature that would do so. Assemblywoman Sayward points out that there are countless rights you get with marriage but not with civil unions. Marriage and civil unions are not at all identical in every way except name.

Many contend that the state should get out of the marriage business and just give everyone civil unions. I happen to agree with this in theory. Many claim that marriage is an institution of God, not of Man. If that's the case, then it should be limited to institutions of God (religious organizations) not institutions of Man (government). But until that happens, that institution of Man must treat all its men and women equally. Equal obligations must mean equal rights.

Although conservative groups generally give her a 90%+ rating, I'm still surprised Assemblywoman Sayward did not receive a primary challenge by the far right. She may well in 2010, especially after the outside groups from the far right mobilized to help successfully torpedo the Congressional candidacy of another pro-civil rites assemblywoman from northern New York.

But I admire Assemblywoman Sayward's guts. I don't vote for Republicans very often. And I never vote for candidates who run unopposed. She is an exception. I admire her courage in following her conscience, although perhaps you could say Sen. Diaz did the same (although I'm not sure if he's following his beliefs or his religion's). But more to it, I think she's a great role model for politicians. Yes, she's a conservative. Yes, she's a Republican. Yes, she's a Roman Catholic. But first and foremost she is a human being and a mother.

My friend Matt often bemoans the lack of real human beings in public office. It's rare in a crass business that we see a politician voluntarily reveal his or her humanity for all to see. It's a risky thing to do in a cutthroat business. And in this case, a heroic one.

Update: Adirondack Almanack offers a different take on the assemblywoman.

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