ACLU Files Lawsuit Seeking Marriage Equality for Same-Sex Couples in New York State

April 7, 2004 12:00 am

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13 Couples Including State Assemblyman Danny O’Donnell and His Partner Underscore Discrimination of New York Marriage Laws


Jeanne Vitale

Jeanne Vitale (left) and Amy Tripi, plaintiffs in the case

NEW YORK – The American Civil Liberties Union today sued the State of New York seeking to strike down as unconstitutional a law that denies same-sex couples the right to marry.

“Same-sex couples who commit to each other and build a life together need the protection of the law just as straight couples do,” said Matt Coles, Director of the ACLU’s Lesbian and Gay Rights Project. “The lives of the couples in this case show all too vividly how unfair it is to deny them that protection.”

The lawsuit, filed in state court in Albany by the ACLU along with the New York Civil Liberties Union and the law firm Paul Weiss Rifkind Wharton & Garrison LLP, charges that the law violates the equal protection, privacy and due process provisions of the New York constitution.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of 13 same-sex couples, many of whom had hoped to be married by New Paltz Mayor Jason West, but were unable to do so after he was forced to stop performing marriages for same-sex couples.

The couples come from many parts of the state including Binghamton, Schenectady, Port Jervis, West Hurley, Mount Vernon, White Plains, Brooklyn and Manhattan. The couples come from all walks of life, ranging from a New York State Assemblyman (Representative Danny O’Donnell) and a New York City Police Officer to a shipping clerk and an artist. Many have been together for decades, and some are raising children together. One couple has grandchildren.

Among the couples who brought the case are:

Sylvia Samuels and Diane Gallagher of Mount Vernon, who have been together for 24 years. Together raised Sylvia’s two children from a prior relationship and they now have three grandchildren as well. Sylvia is suffering form liver cancer and is currently unable to work at her job as a computer information technology specialist. With Sylvia facing grave health problems, the couple worries that Diane will not be permitted to visit Sylvia in the hospital or will be kept out of conversations about emergency medical decisions. In the summer of 2000, the couple’s fears were realized when Sylvia was hit by a car while riding a bicycle in North Carolina. Doctors would not let Diane be with Sylvia while she was unconscious in the emergency room.

Heather McDonnell and Carol Snyder of White Plains, who have been together for 14 years. Carol and Heather have also been treated as strangers during medical emergencies. After Carol was diagnosed with breast cancer 11 years ago, they looked for a surgeon who would understand the significance of their relationship. Even so, Heather was constantly challenged by hospital staff. In January 2003 this discrimination was repeated when Carol had a cardiac event caused by a bad reaction to medication. Even though the couple had set up health care proxies for each other, Heather was still asked to leave by a nurse at a point when Carol was in serious distress.

Michael Hahn and Paul Muhonen of Binghamton, who have been together for 22 years. Michael works for a local bank and Paul is a manager at a local Howard Johnson’s hotel and restaurant. Paul doesn’t have health insurance at his job, and Michael’s employer doesn’t offer domestic partner benefits. The couple understands all too clearly what it’s like to be discriminated against for being gay: When Michael relocated from Ohio to his job in Binghamton, his employer refused to pay the moving expenses after he found that that Michael is gay. When trying to rent a house together last year, they were turned down by the owner after he asked them point-blank if they were gay.

Wade Nichols of New York City and Francis Shen of Taiwan, who cannot live in the same country because the immigration laws of both countries do not recognize their relationship. Francis (a Taiwanese citizen) cannot stay for long periods in the United States and Wade (a United State citizen) cannot stay for long periods in Taiwan without work sponsorship. They simply want to be able to live together in the same country.

Regina Cicchetti and Susan Zimmer of Port Jervis. Regina had this to say: “After being together for 34 years, we’ve learned a lot about love and commitment. I don’t know that I could have made it through two life-threatening illnesses without the support of Susan. As we face getting older, we see more and more how the state disadvantages us by not letting us marry. We are taking part in this lawsuit to ensure that all couples in committed relationships are treated equally.”

“The couples in this lawsuit represent just a few of the thousands of same-sex couples in New York who are being denied the basic rights that millions of married couples enjoy across the state,” said Roberta Kaplan of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton and Garrison, LLP, which is representing the couples along with the ACLU. “The New York Constitution guarantees equal treatment for all people. That includes equal treatment in marriage.”

Donna Lieberman, Executive Director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, added: ” New York has a long history of respecting and protecting the right to create families free from discrimination. This case is about ending discrimination in marriage so that same-sex couples and their families have the protection they need.”

The legal complaint in the case is online at

Biographical information about all of the couples is online at /node/22262

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