The New York City Equal Benefits Bill, which would require contractors with the city to treat the domestic partners of employees the same as their spouses, gets its final hearing on Friday, February 27 at 10 a.m. in the City Council Contracts Committee at City Hall.
After months of trying to get the legal issues concerning the Equal Benefits Bill clarified, Gay City News received the following e-mail from Katherine Ahlers, spokesperson for the City’s Law Department: “We will be declining further comment on these issues. You are welcome to quote me.”
“Their silence speaks volumes,” said Councilmember Christine Quinn (D-Chelsea), the chief sponsor of the Equal Benefits Bill. “I got no answer from the mayor’s testifiers when they opposed the bill in November. They can’t answer because they don’t have a legal leg to stand on.”
The bill may be in for some legal challenges from religious contractors who say that aiding domestic partners would somehow violate their religious freedom. On that issue, there is good news and bad from a federal judge in a Portland, Maine case where Catholic Charities was told that they had no First Amendment right to a city contract and could be required to provide certain kinds of domestic partner benefits, but not health benefits that fall under the regulation of federal ERISA laws. (See Arthur S. Leonard’s story on this page.)
Quinn was not familiar with the Portland decision and had no comment on how it might relate to the New York’s Equal Benefits Bill.
While no opponents other than the mayor’s representatives testified against the bill in November, Quinn anticipates they will come out for Friday’s final hearing. She met with representatives of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York last week and they asked for a religious exemption from the legislation. Quinn told them that the Archdiocese of San Francisco complied with the law there––which simply required employers to offer their workers spousal-type benefits to one person of their designation–– and thereby kept their contracts.
“They thanked me for the outreach,” Quinn said, but said they would have to take the language of the bill to “higher ups” before reaching a position. The Salvation Army indicated last year that they might choose to forgo their contracts rather than comply.
“The bill has a veto-proof majority of sponsors,” said Quinn, “but sponsors do not always hang tough. The pressure will come and we need community members to call their councilmembers.” Quinn said she feels “cautiously optimistic” about passage and a veto override if necessary, but added, “I don’t like to take things for granted.” Nevertheless, she said, “Not one single member has told me they’re getting off the bill,” despite the fact that opponents are starting to call their offices.
“The Council needs to feel a sense of urgency about this bill,” said Levi of the Pride Agenda, calling it “the most tangible thing that New York City’s government can do right now to give our families the support that they need.”
For more information on the hearing and the campaign for the Equal Benefits Bill, call Carin Mirowitz in Quinn’s office at 212-564-7757, x 105.