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Capital Region celebrates new ‘law of the land’

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Capital Region celebrates new ‘law of the land’

At 10 a.m., a man eating breakfast at Shirley’s Diner in Saratoga Springs checked his Twitter feed a
Capital Region celebrates new ‘law of the land’
Megan Barry performs a same-sex marriage between Lauren Mesnard and Nikki VonHaeger today in Nashville, Tenn. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that gay marriage was legal everywhere in the United States, overturning Tennessee's ban. (Larry McCormack/The Te...

It was 10 a.m. Friday. A man eating breakfast at Shirley’s Diner in Saratoga Springs checked his Twitter feed and screamed. It wasn’t intentional. It was a pure of-the-moment reaction. It was a scream of joy, of relief.

Diners turned to look at Kevin O’Brien in confusion. Seeing everyone’s stares, he uttered just two words, loud enough for everyone to hear: “Marriage equality.”

“And everybody just clapped,” he recalled later that day. “It was immediate, just an immediate expression. I didn’t really know what I was doing. I just said it and people started smiling and clapping. You know, the president said it best this morning: Equality has won the day.”

Those enjoying breakfast at Shirley’s and others around the Capital Region couldn’t help but react to the landmark decision Friday by the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled 5-4 that the Constitution guarantees a nationwide right to same-sex marriage. It didn’t matter that New York had legalized same-sex marriage four years ago. The decision rendered same-sex marriages and the rights that come with them legal everywhere in the nation, including the 14 states that had bans in place. It was a historic ruling, and perhaps the most significant win for civil rights in America since 1954’s Brown v. Board Education, according to one local attorney.

O’Brien married his husband three years ago, but was starkly aware that it meant nothing as soon as he crossed state lines to somewhere that didn’t recognize same-sex marriage. There were trips out of state when he and his husband were careful not to show any public affection, and even one trip to Culpeper, Virginia, when they were turned away after trying to rent a hotel room together.

Friday, he felt a sense of belonging he didn’t feel when New York legalized same-sex marriage.

“Wherever I go in the country now, marriage equality is the law of the land,” he said. “It’s no longer heterosexual marriage or same-sex marriage in the United States. It’s just marriage.”

More to do

Many LGBT activists in the Capital Region reacted with mixed feelings Friday. There was relief and jubilation, of course, but sadness and even anger that their friends in the transgender community still suffer much discrimination. The disappointment was especially fresh after the state Senate this week again failed to vote on the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act, a bill that would have outlawed discrimination based on gender identity or expression and expanded the state’s hate crime laws to include crimes against transgender people.

“While we’re celebrating our victory we’re also hurting because there’s still a long way to go,” said Michael Weidrich, interim executive director of the Pride Center of the Capital Region. “The rights of transgender people in New York state and across the country are in jeopardy. We want dignity and safety for everybody in our community.”

But one local attorney who specializes in matrimonial law suspects the Supreme Court ruling opens the door for other groups of Americans who have suffered discrimination to achieve equal rights.

“If you look at their decision under the 14th amendment, it expands the equal protection clause,” said Mario Cometti, a partner at Tully Rinckey PLLC in Albany. “So you can be assured that other people looking to ensure their civil rights can use this expanded protection to their benefit.”

The landmark ruling will also make it harder for business owners to justify any type of discrimination against same-sex couples, he said.

“When people are acting in a capacity that’s not religious, when they open a diner to the public and offer a service, just like they cannot preclude black people from eating at their diner they cannot preclude gay people,” Cometti said. “But I think we will absolutely see a class of people down the road, maybe it’s those who sell wedding cakes or host wedding ceremonies, who feel that their religious freedoms are being infringed on under this ruling.”

Voices against

Some religious leaders in the Capital Region and across the state expressed disappointment Friday in the marriage ruling. Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger of the Albany Roman Catholic Diocese called the Supreme Court decision misguided and a “very narrow and deconstructive view of this rich, God-given gift.”

“Today’s misguided Supreme Court decision cannot change what marriage is, any more than decreeing the world flat can make it so,” he wrote on his Facebook page Friday. “Fortunately, the beauty and holiness of what marriage is will continue to shine in the intimate, life-long partnership of love and sacrificial self-giving between one man and one woman, fundamentally open toward the procreation and education of human persons.”

New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms, a statewide public policy organization representing the state’s evangelical Christian community, also came out against the ruling, saying that a majority of the court had “simply imposed its trendy, elitist policy preferences” on America. The Rev. Jason McGuire, the group’s executive director, said the decision not only invented a constitutional right to same-sex marriage, but took away the rights of states to decide which marriages they recognize as legal. He also expressed concerns over religious freedoms.

“We must continue to use all peaceful means at our disposal to stand for religious freedom — both for individuals and for institutions,” he said in a statement. “Too many people have already been hurt by the coercive imposition of same-sex ‘marriage’ upon conscientious objectors. It must stop here.”

‘A big deal’

Chad Putnam wondered Friday how many people truly understood the impact of inequality. The deputy city clerk for the city of Schenectady came out as gay his senior year of high school. It was 1994.

“I had struggled with my identity for so long, and then to not be accepted, it really contributed to my struggles with drug and alcohol addiction,” he said. “I spent my 21st and 22nd birthday in rehab. So almost 20 years later, to be validated by the Supreme Court and told that you’re equal?”

He paused to choke back tears, then cleared his throat.

“It’s powerful,” he said.

Cindy Swadba is going to stop packing her marriage license when she travels. The Saratoga Springs woman traveled to Massachusetts to marry her partner in 2004, and took to packing her marriage license whenever they traveled, just in case.

In case her wife was hospitalized in another state, she wanted the license as proof she was more than a girlfriend, even if it wouldn’t really make a difference. She packed it in case she wanted to rent a car and didn’t want to pay the surcharge that comes when you add a second driver on the policy who’s not your husband or wife.

“I can’t imagine a straight couple ever thinks about carrying that piece of paper,” she said.

Swadba came out in the early 1970s when most gay people felt like members of a “dark, secret society,” she said. She marched on Washington once in the 1980s and still has the T-shirt she wore with the slogan “It’s A Simple Matter of Justice” lying around her home somewhere.

Today, she’s an organizer at Saratoga Pride, an affiliate of the Pride Center of the Capital Region. Most days, though, she considers herself a “regular old human being,” not an activist. But Friday morning, when the Supreme Court issued its ruling, she realized she had been holding her breath for a long time.

“I just exhaled,” she said. “My partner and I were both sitting at the kitchen table with iPads in front of us, checking the SCOTUS blog, and I just exhaled. Because we’re not only New Yorkers. We live in the United States, and this is a big deal for every U.S. citizen. It’s a big deal for my brothers and sisters, gays and lesbians all over the country, in Texas, Alabama, everywhere. It took us a long time, but we finally have equal rights.”

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