Image: Applying for license
Tony Avelar  /  AP
Sharon Papo, left, and Amber Weiss apply for an appointment for a marriage license at City Hall in San Francisco earlier this month.
updated 5/29/2008 4:03:23 PM ET 2008-05-29T20:03:23

Religious and social conservatives vowed Thursday to fight Gov. David Paterson's directive requiring state agencies to recognize gay marriages performed legally elsewhere, saying it flouts traditional values and is a big step toward legalizing same-sex unions in New York.

"The definition of marriage predates recorded history," said New York State Catholic Conference Executive Director Richard E. Barnes. "No single politician or court or legislature should attempt to redefine the very building block of our society in a way that alters its entire meaning and purpose."

Paterson issued a memo earlier this month saying that gay New Yorkers who marry where it is legal will have the right to share family health care plans, receive tax breaks by filing jointly, enjoy stronger adoption rights and inherit property.

He cited a February ruling in a New York Appellate Division court in which the judges determined that there is no legal impediment in New York to the recognition of a same-sex marriage.

Calif. court rules on same-sex marriage
Earlier this month, the California Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage in the nation's most populous state is legal. The ruling overturned a voter-approved ban on gay marriage.

At a Manhattan news conference on Thursday, Paterson, a Roman Catholic, defended the directive, saying failure to issue it would have left the state open to lawsuits claiming the state deprived gay couples of civil rights enjoyed in other states.

"We have a time-held and time-tested tradition honoring those marital rights," Paterson said. "I am taking the same approach that this state always has with respect to out-of-state or marriages conducted in foreign governments being recognized here in the state of New York. I am following the law as it has always existed."

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino, traveling with the President on Thursday, said she had only seen a brief report about the directive.

"I'm sure there's going to be a lot of people who analyze the legal ramifications of it. I think the President's point is that judges shouldn't be making these decisions; the people should be making these decisions," Perino said.

Questions about constitutionality
Earlier Thursday, state Senate Republican Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, who opposes gay marriage, questioned the constitutionality of Paterson's action but said he hadn't yet seen the memo.

Bruno said the state's highest court has found gay marriage isn't legal within the state. The high court hasn't yet taken up the issue of whether gay marriages performed legally out of state are valid in New York.

"You have to understand that the court, the highest court here in New York state, made it very very clear that the only union that is legal in New York state, to perform a marriage ceremony, is between a man and a woman," Bruno said, citing a 2006 Court or Appeals ruling.

Last year, the Democrat-led Assembly passed a bill to legalize same-sex marriage, but the Senate didn't take up the bill. A vote in the Senate is considered even less likely this year, a legislative election year in which the Republicans are hoping to cling to its majority by appealing in part to its more conservative base.

Massachusetts is the only U.S. state that recognizes same-sex marriage, but its residency requirements bar New Yorkers from marrying there. Canada is among the nations where gay marriage is legal.

In California, gay couples will be able to wed beginning June 17 — unless that state's Supreme Court decides to stay its own ruling.

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