King: Same-sex marriage debate heats up in New York

Christine Quinn, speaker of the New York City Council, and her partner, Kim Catullo, talk to John King.
As she lobbies members of the New York Senate these days, the politician in Christine Quinn can understand what the gay rights activist in her sometimes cannot.

NEW YORK (CNN) — As she lobbies members of the New York Senate these days, the politician in Christine Quinn can understand what the gay rights activist in her sometimes cannot. “The fear of the unknown,” is how she describes it. “This is a vote they’ve never cast before. And they don’t know how people are going to react. You are in a position where people’s reaction to you is the key to your success. And the unknown creates fear and fear often creates paralysis.” Quinn is the openly gay speaker of the New York City Council, and a proponent of legalizing same sex marriage in New York state. “It is really encouraging to see what’s happening around the country in places where you really wouldn’t expect it, like Iowa,” says Quinn’s longtime partner, Kim Catullo. “To be in a place like New York and not have it just doesn’t seem to make sense.” The New York Assembly passed legislation allowing same-sex marriages earlier this month, and the question now is whether there are enough votes in the state Senate to pass the legislation before the legislature adjourns for the year. Go behind the scenes with John King as he discusses his report from New York Quinn, who spent time in Albany this past week meeting with undecided senators, is cautiously optimistic.

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“It was amazing how much openness there was,” she said of private meetings with lawmakers who are undecided and even a few who have said they are likely to oppose the legislation. “We just all have to create a moment for them to step forward. So I really think it is going to happen this month, before the legislative session is over.” Maggie Gallagher sees the Senate math quite differently. “We are now working in 24 Senate districts,” says Gallagher, president of the National Organization for Marriage, which opposes same-sex marriages. “We know we have generated thousands of phone calls to legislators. I don’t think they will be passing a gay marriage bill this session.” The New York legislation is part of a growing national debate, and one which will gain even more attention because of the U.S. Supreme Court vacancy and the nomination of federal appeals court judge Sonia Sotomayor to fill it. “Not tomorrow. Not likely in the coming year unless the courts move dramatically faster than we are used to seeing them move,” is how Columbia Law School Professor Suzanne Goldberg answers when asked when the issue of same-sex marriage is likely to make the Supreme Court docket. “But certainly some time in the next couple of years we’re likely to see the Supreme Court issue a position or two on this issue.” Goldberg knows Sotomayer well; the judge is also a lecturer at Columbia. “We’ve never spoken about the issue,” Goldberg told us. “I have no inside information about her views. What I would say is that she is both a wise person and a thoughtful person and being wise and thoughtful are the right ingredients for reaching what to me is the right answer on this issue, which to me is that equality applies to all people.” The likelihood of the issue reaching the Supreme Court in the next year or two raises the stakes in the state battles.

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Opponents of California’s voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage vow to try again in 2010 in hopes of a different result. A new federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of California’s Proposition 8 was filed this week and could well be among the cases that make it to the Supreme Court eventually. Five states now allow same-sex marriage: Maine, Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts and Vermont, and the states with active debates include California, New York, New Jersey and New Hampshire. In an interview in their apartment in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York, Quinn and Catullo agreed the ideal solution for them would be federal recognition of the right of same-sex couples to marry. But the federal Defense of Marriage Act signed by President Clinton defines marriage as between a man and a woman. And President Obama says he supports civil unions and other benefits for same-sex couples but opposes marriage. “He’s not perfect on this issue and I want him to be perfect,” Quinn said of Obama. “And I’m fairly certain that pretty soon he will be perfect on this issue and what we just have to do is keep talking to him and keep educating him and keep working on him.” “It doesn’t help,” Catullo says of Obama’s opposition. Still, like Quinn, she hopes eventually, “he can evolve.” Gallagher, of the National Organization for Marriage, is worried more about the high court than any pressure on Obama from gay rights activists. “Well I don’t believe David Souter was on our side on the gay marriage issue although we don’t know for sure,” Gallagher said. So in her line of speculating, swapping Sotomayor for Souter isn’t likely to swing the court in any major way. Her major worry is if one of the more conservative judges decided to retire in the near future. “I don’t think this one is going to tip the balance,” Gallagher said. “But we’re very close. We’re probably only one Supreme Court justice away from a nationally imposed right to same-sex marriage whether we like it or not. That is the ultimate game plan of the gay marriage forces.”

Catullo would prefer a conversation less political. “I really do believe that if someone lived next to us or really knew us, it wouldn’t be an issue at all,” she said. “I mean we are good people. We’re law-abiding. We’re taxpayers. We’re just an eight-year couple that’s been together a long time and we do a lot of the things that a normal couple does. There’s a lot more things in the world to worry about than the fact that we want to be married.”