ALBANY - New York state will recognize gay marriages legally performed in other states and countries, according to a memo from the counsel to Gov. David Paterson, the governor's spokeswoman said Wednesday. State agencies, including those governing insurance and health care, must immediately recognize same-sex marriages legally performed elsewhere as valid in New York, according to the directive.
Same-sex marriage is not legal in New York, and the state's highest court, the Court of Appeals, has said it can only be legalized by the Legislature. But the memo, based on a Feb. 1 New York Appellate Division court ruling, would recognize the marriages of New Yorkers who are legally wed elsewhere. The appellate judges determined that there is no legal impediment in New York to the recognition of a same-sex marriage.
The state Legislature "may decide to prohibit the recognition of same-sex marriages solemnized abroad," the ruling said. "Until it does so, however, such marriages are entitled to recognition in New York."
Gay rights advocates have sought recognition for gay marriages so couples could share family health care plans, receive tax breaks by filing jointly, enjoy stronger adoption rights and inherit property. Most of these advocates rejected so-called gay unions, thought to be a compromise, because the unions lacked the legal protections of marriage.
Many or all of these rights would now appear to be available to legally married gay couples, according to the memo.
Agencies have until June 30 to report back to the governor's counsel on how, specifically, the directive will change existing state benefits and services for gay couples.
Massachusetts is currently the only U.S. state that recognizes same-sex marriage, but its residency requirements would bar New Yorkers from marrying there.
New York residents could instead flock to California, where gay couples will be able to wed beginning June 17 — unless that state's Supreme Court decides to stay its own ruling.
Upon their return home, in the eyes of the state, their unions would be no different from those of their heterosexual neighbors.
Gay couples could also travel outside the country to marry in Canada, for example.
The move by Paterson's administration is one of the strongest steps the state can take short of action by the Legislature.
In a video shown at the Empire State Pride Agenda's spring dinner on Saturday, the governor said he directed the measures as "a strong step toward marriage equality right here in our state."