February 7, 2008
New York Appellate Court Recognizes Canadian Same-Sex Marriage
The plaintiffs, a couple married in Canada in 2004, moved to New York and claimed employment spousal benefits from their employer, Monroe Community College. Martinez v. County of Monroe, 2008 WL 275138 (N.Y. App. Div. Feb. 1, 2008). The College denied the benefits, claiming that New York did not recognize same-sex marriages. The plaintiffs asserted that the defendant violated the employee's rights by discriminating against her on the basis of her sexual orientation in violation of the state's equal protection clause and in violation of Executive Law Section 296 (forbidding employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation). Id. at *1. In other words, had she been heterosexual and married a man in another state, the College would have recognized her marriage and permitted her to obtain benefits for her husband. Thus, she was discriminated against because she was a lesbian and married a same-sex partner. The appellate court agreed, relating to the violation of Executive Law Section 296, and ordered the College to grant her spouse benefits. Id.
The court noted that out of state marriages are recognized in New York unless they are prohibited by: (1) the "positive law" of New York (or are prohibited by statute); or (2) "natural law" (or moral prohibitions such as a ban on incest or polygamy). Id. The court explained that New York has not enacted a ban on same-sex marriages or a mini-DOMA. Id. at *2. Similarly, there is no indication that same-sex marriage violates New York public policy. Id. Although New York courts have not recognized a right to same-sex marriage under the State Constitution, the courts have not denied that the legislature could choose to pass laws permitting same-sex marriage. Id.
Because the "sole reason for defendants' rejection of the marital status of the plaintiff is her sexual orientation," they violated the employment non-discrimination provisions of Executive Law Section 296. Id.
Thus, the court avoided the thornier issue of the equal protection analysis. This would have required the court to apply to the lowest form of review to the alleged sexual orientation discrimination. See Hernandez v. Robles, 855 N.E.2d 1 (N.Y. 2006). In that instance, the court would have had to uphold the statute if the school could justify that the different treatment was rationally related to a legitimate governmental interest. By deciding the issue under employment discrimination law, the court avoided having to apply the lowest form of review to the case and, potentially, permitting the State to discriminate based on a reasonable justification.