This afternoon, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo introduced a bill he expects the state senate to pass before its current session winds down, which would, in the words of one Democratic lawmaker, “redefine what the American family is.”
Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, who also serves as the president of the national body of Catholic bishops, appealed to New Yorkers’ commitment to freedom in a statement urging Albany lawmakers to avoid “tamper[ing] with life’s most basic values.”
I talked to Edward T. Mechmann, a lawyer who deals with public-policy issues for the Archdiocese of New York as assistant director of its Family Life/Respect Life Office, about the significance of this legislative battle over marriage.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: How worried are you that marriage as we know it is about to change in New York State?
Ed Mechmann: We are very concerned about the redefinition of marriage. The arguments at this point are almost purely political. And the most powerful forces in New York politics — the governor, the Democratic party, the liberal activist groups, the gay community, and the public-employee unions — are all in favor of it. The only thing holding it back is the strong public opposition from religious groups and grassroots conservatives.
Lopez: What will that mean, practically speaking?
Mechmann: It will mean that every marriage in New York has been redefined. No longer will it mean what everyone in the world believed it meant (until about ten years ago). It will send a signal that marriage is merely a private arrangement for the subjective satisfaction of two individuals, with no significance to children or to society. And all this, at a time when families are in crisis, and when family instability can be identified as the source of many of our social problems. The law is a teacher, and it will be teaching a very bad, very dangerous lesson.
Lopez: How can we even know that much, given that there hasn’t even been a bill under debate?
Mechmann: This is one of the truly exasperating things about the legislative process in New York. The governor is likely to introduce his bill, which nobody has seen, and issue a phony “Statement of Necessity” that waives all legislative time limits and procedures. The legislature will then hold a vote without any public hearings or more than a perfunctory debate. It’s democracy through the Looking Glass.
The governor did release a bill this afternoon. It does have some language about religious exemptions different from the previous bill. Our preliminary analysis suggests that it is not as broad as language that has been adopted or proposed in other states (e.g., Connecticut and Rhode Island). But, of course, there won’t be public hearings to discuss the implications, there won’t be time for legal experts to figure out all the ramifications, and there won’t be time to coolly reflect on what it all means. The governor will try to push it through thelegislature in the next few days.
In any event, no matter what language the governor puts in the bill about religious exemptions, we still oppose it.
Lopez: Did it surprise you that one of the Democrats who switched yesterday, Carl Kruger, announced, “What we’re about to do is redefine what the American family is. And that’s a good thing”?
Mechmann: Legislative humility is not exactly a widely practiced virtue in New York, so it didn’t surprise me that a one of our state senators would consider himself qualified to redefine the basic structure of society. What did surprise me was that he was candid enough to say it aloud.
Lopez: Does a small percentage of men marrying (to use the term advocates use) men and women marrying women really pose a threat to the American family? Why can’t they do their thing and we do ours, and we all get along? You can argue natural law, but if it doesn’t feel natural to them, who’s to say?
Mechmann: To be clear, we are talking about redefining marriage to satisfy a very tiny percentage of society — only three to four percent of the population defines themselves as gay or lesbian, and the Massachusetts experience suggests that only a small percentage of them will even get “married.”
New York long ago decriminalized homosexual conduct, so gays and lesbians are perfectly free to do whatever they want. That’s not what this debate is really about. It’s about forcing society, and everyone in it, to recognize the moral equivalence of heterosexual and homosexual acts. And I do mean “force,” by using all the powers of the state and local governments.
The problem also is that if you redefine marriage, you’re changing a public, not private, institution. The effect of the redefinition of marriage will reach far beyond the parties to the “marriage.” For example, this bill would change the meaning of countless laws that ban discrimination on the basis of marital status. Those laws touch areas like eligibility for government contracts, employment decisions, tax-exempt status, and eligibility for professional or business licenses. We have no idea how the bill might affect religious organizations and individuals who oppose the redefinition of marriage. And the governor and legislature aren’t even talking about this.
Lopez: If gay marriage is “inevitable” — as we often hear — anywhere, it would be inevitable in New York, wouldn’t it? New York State had legal abortion before everyone else. To this day, New York City is the abortion capital of the nation. New York is “progressive,” as a progressive would say. How could there not be gay marriage there?
Mechmann: New York is actually not as liberal or progressive as people think, especially once you look upstate, or if you look into the African-American, Hispanic, or immigrant communities. For example, New York resisted passing, until 2010, a law that permitted “no fault” divorce — partly through legislative dysfunction, but also because many people and groups realized that marriage should not be tampered with. Even the opinion polls touted by the “marriage equality” advocates show very tepid support for redefining marriage.
Lopez: What have New York Catholics been doing to work against this legislative effort? Is there something they in particular can offer the debate?
Mechmann: Our Catholic Conference has been working tirelessly to lobby individual legislators, especially the leadership. We have also been working an intense grassroots effort, taking advantage of an extensive email network of local activists, focusing on the “on the fence” legislators. We’ve also been collaborating with other religious groups (especially New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedom, an evangelical group that is very influential) and the National Organization for Marriage. It’s been a very vigorous campaign.
Catholics still offer a unique voice in the public debate here. Everyone understands that the Church is not speaking from partisan politics or special interests, but is instead talking about principles. Even in the New York legislature, that has an impact. Plus, we still have the largest grassroots organization in the state (think of all those parishes as local chapters and you’ll see what I mean), and the legislators recognize our pastors and bishops as community leaders — and our parishioners as regular voters.
Lopez: Shouldn’t it help your legislative agenda to have a Catholic in the governor’s mansion?
Mechmann: Let’s be honest. Since 1973, the governor’s mansion has been occupied almost entirely by men who were baptized in the Catholic faith. They have been helpful to some parts of our legislative agenda (particularly in supporting the Catholic schools and social services). But they have all been of very little help — and a great deal of harm in many cases — on the issues that matter the most, the defense of innocent human life and the family. That is not going to change with the incumbent.
Lopez: How about to actually save marriage itself — beyond the legal concerns? One of the more compelling arguments proponents of gay marriage have is breaking out a mirror: If we actually want to get married, why would you prevent us? It’s not like men and women have kept marriage so sacred — examples, including of Catholics, abound.
Mechmann: On this, the same-sex “marriage” activists have a grain of truth in what they say. The reality is that marriage is suffering, here in New York and elsewhere, because of the resort to temporary and unstable arrangements like cohabitation, the lack of marital fidelity and permanence, and the de-emphasis of the importance of marriage for children (and vice versa).
But how does it make sense to water down the meaning of marriage even more?
The real effort that must be made — that the Church is making — is to preach the truth about marriage, to offer single and engaged persons support in choosing the vocation of marriage, and strengthening those who are already married. That’s a battle being fought in communities, churches, and families, and will go on no matter what the outcome of this debate might be.
Lopez: Black evangelical churches in Maryland held back a similar effort in Annapolis not so long ago. Could something similar happen in New York?
Mechmann: The African-American and Hispanic communities in New York are still largely untapped for their political potential. Their activism could make a difference here, but honestly we just haven’t seen it yet.
Lopez: Is the good news in Albany that this is a legislative, not a judicial effort?
Mechmann: Yes, it is encouraging. New York State’s Court of Appeals has already held that same-sex “marriage” is not required by our state constitution — a ruling that frankly surprised many of us, who expected that they would legalize it with a pen stroke. Now, if we could only get New York’s legislative process to actually resemble a democratic institution, with real procedures and authentic openness to public opinion, we could actually have a republican form of government again.
Lopez: How is this not a civil-rights issue for Americans who identify themselves as homosexuals or who otherwise have homosexual desires?
Mechmann: To call it a “civil rights” issue begs the question. Usually, when we’re speaking of a “civil right” we’re talking about something that is deeply rooted in our history and tradition, something that is intrinsic to ordered liberty and full participation in our society and the political process. How can something that nobody even imagined 15 years ago fall into that category? If anything, the redefinition of marriage is denying the civil rights of married couples to have special recognition and protection of their union — which is undeniably deeply rooted in our history and tradition, something that is intrinsic to ordered liberty and full participation in our society.
Lopez: Are you intolerant? Are we on the wrong side of history?
Mechmann: As for intolerance, here’s an omen of how it’s going to be here in New York — a sign posted on the Facebook page of a Democratic state senator of her office door, with an arrow pointing to the floor, reading “Bigots and Homophobes Please Put Your Literature Here.” That’s what we have to look forward to if this bill is passed.