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Samuels et al. v. New York State Department of Health (Challenging interpretation of state law to prohibit same-sex marriage)

This case involves a facial challenge to New York’s Domestic Relations Law, which has been interpreted by the New York State Department of Health as prohibiting same-sex marriages. On April 7, 2004, the ACLU and NYCLU – with Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, LLP serving as cooperating counsel – filed this suit on behalf of thirteen same-sex couples who are prohibited from marrying by the Department of Health’s interpretation of the State’s Domestic Relations law. The plaintiffs seek legal recognition of the commitment that they have already made to one another and seek the equal protection of the laws. The plaintiffs note that denying marriage to same-sex couples deprives them of over 700 benefits under New York State law, including the financial benefits that civil marriage ensures. They further argue that the State’s policy brands same-sex couples with the stigma of inferiority.

The suit rests upon three discrete state constitutional principles: 1) equal protection (principles prohibiting both sexual orientation and gender discrimination); 2) due process principles, which protect the fundamental right to form familial relationships, to create and maintain family life, and to marry; and 3) freedom of speech, since marriage is a unique form of public expression that can only be made through the expressive forum of a civil ceremony or public contract which are created and recognized by the State. The plaintiffs claim that the State offers no legitimate goal that is achieved by denying their ability to marry and thereby depriving them of necessary protections. Both parties have moved for summary judgment.

On Dec. 7, 2004, the Supreme Court of Albany County declared that applying the Domestic Relations Law to deny marriage licenses to same sex couples is not unconstitutional. The ACLU and NYCLU filed a direct appeal with the New York Court of Appeals. On March 31, 2005, the Court of Appeals held that it was without jurisdiction to entertain a direct appeal and it remanded the case to the Appellate Division, Third Department. On Feb. 16, 2006, the Appellate Division, Third Department affirmed the lower court’s decision. The plaintiffs again appealed to the New York Court of Appeals, which agreed to hear their case. On July 6, 2006, the New York Court of Appeals ruled that the New York Constitution does not compel the recognition of same sex marriages and that the question of same sex marriages must be decided by the Legislature. 

State Supreme Court, Albany County, Index No. 1967-04 (direct) 

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