To the teacher:
On June 24, New York became the sixth state to legalize same-sex marriage. Gay rights advocates have been cheering ever since.
The event abounds with teachable moments. The following lesson focuses on two of them. After discussing the news from New York, students explore how a bill becomes a law-that is, the real nuts-and-bolts politicking by which legislatures agree to pass controversial laws. Next, students zero in on how and why several individual politicians came to support gay marriage after having opposed it.
New York legalizes gay marriage
1. What do students know about gay marriage?
Ask students what they know about marriage equality. Do gay and lesbian people have the right to marry in this country? If so, where?
Have they heard that on June 24, 2011, New York State passed a law legalizing gay marriage, becoming the sixth and largest state to do so? What have they heard about this major political development?
Explain that New York's legislature hasn't always supported legalizing gay marriage. In 2009, the state rejected a similar bill.
Ask students: Why do you think the state legislature changed its position?
Students may volunteer that public opinion has shifted toward accepting gay marriage. In fact, in May 2009, a national poll found that 40% of Americans favored legalizing same-sex marriage. By May 2011, that number had grown to 53%. You might note that this change of opinion reflects many years of organizing by gays and lesbians and their allies and a concerted effort by many people to increase understanding and acceptance of people's different sexual preferences.
Nevertheless, the rapid passage of this new law took many people by surprise.
2. What do students know about how state laws get passed?
Ask students to tell you what they know about how state governments make laws. Ask:
- What branch of the government makes most of the laws?
- Who are the people in that branch of government? How do they get their jobs in government?
- Who proposes laws?
- Who votes on those proposals?
- What factors determine how they vote on specific issues?
Some students may have a picture that looks something like this: We voters elect people to represent our wishes and interests in the state and national legislatures. When an issue arises, these elected representatives vote on it based on the way we- at least the majority of us - want them to vote.
If you have a civics textbook, have students look at the chart that shows how a bill becomes a law. Or you might use this chart about how legislation gets through the U.S. Senate. Explain that the actual process by which a bill becomes law is a lot more complex and involves much more strategizing than the graphic shows. In real life, legislators' decisions about bills are shaped by many factors, not just their constituents' wishes. They also consider the needs of their political party; the promise of money to help support their reelection campaign; and their personal beliefs and experiences.
All three of these factors came into play in New York's recent passage of a marriage equality law.
A behind-the-scenes view of how the law was passed
The following reading, based on reporting by the New York Times (6/26/11) , focuses on what went on behind the scenes as the New York state Senate considered passing a law that would legalize same-sex marriage.
When New York Governor Andrew Cuomo took office earlier this year, same-sex marriage was high on his legislative agenda. It had been a top issue for him on the campaign trail.
In March, Cuomo met with gay-rights advocates and expressed his support for same-sex marriage. But he told the advocates that their in-fighting had contributed to the failure of the 2009 bill. He told them that he would take a lead role in this year's effort, and he expected them to cooperate - with each other and with him - to get the job done. They agreed.
Most New York Senate Democrats supported a marriage equality law. But passing the law would require getting "yes" votes from three Democrats who had voted against the 2009 bill. One of the three was Sen. Paul Kruger. When Democratic leaders approached Kruger, they learned that he was open to changing his vote. It turned out that a gay relative had stopped speaking to Kruger after his 2009 "no" vote. "It has gotten personal now," Kruger said. Kruger's Democratic colleagues reminded him, "When everything else is gone, all you have left is family." Kruger agreed to support the bill.
A second Democrat, Sen. Shirley Huntley, agreed to vote "yes" out of loyalty to her fellow Democrats. And a third, Sen. Joseph Addabbo, Jr., said he would vote whichever way his constituents wanted. So the Human Rights Campaign urged all the gay-rights supporters in Addabbo's district to write to him. They did, and Addabbo agreed to vote yes.
But New York's Senate doesn't have a Democratic majority, so passing the new law would also require getting support from some Republicans in the state Senate. A few weeks before the vote was to come up, Cuomo asked three rich Republicans to help him get Republican support for the bill. They agreed. One of them, Paul Singer, has a gay son who married his partner in Massachusetts, where same-sex marriage is legal. The other two believed that same-sex marriage is a personal freedom issue. All three men wrote "six-figure checks" to support the lobbying campaign for the bill.
The Republican donors also promised to support fellow Republicans who voted for the law. They met with Sen. James Alesi, a Republican who seemed to regret his 2009 "no" vote. They told Alesi they would support him if he voted yes; they helped get a major employer in Alesi's district to sign on to the same-sex marriage campaign; and they collected 5,000 signed postcards from Alesi's constituents. Then Cuomo stepped in to seal the deal, and Alesi agreed to vote yes.
Republican Sen. Mark Grisanti also changed his vote, saying in an emotional speech before the state Senate, "I cannot legally come up with an argument against same-sex marriage. Who am I to say that someone does not have the same rights that I have with my wife who I love, or [to] have the 1300-plus rights that I share with her?" And Sen. Steven Saland also signed on, saying, "I have defined doing the right thing as treating all persons with equality. And that equality includes the definition of marriage." (http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0611/57749.html)
Finally, Cuomo met with state Senate Republicans to secure their support, and the rest is history. On June 24, the Senate passed the law legalizing same-sex marriage, and Cuomo signed it.
Analyzing the victory
Have students break into groups of 3 or 4. Ask each group to review the reading and highlight or underline the behind-the-scenes actions that contributed to the marriage equality bill becoming law.
When all the groups have finished, call on students to share the events on their group's list, and make a class list of these events on chart paper.
Ask students what questions this list raises for them. If they need prompting, ask them about these topics:
How important do you think Cuomo's leadership was to passing the law? Why do you think so? How would you describe Cuomo's leadership?
What role did money play in the negotiations? Do you think that wealthy people have more clout in getting laws passed than people who aren't wealthy? Why or why not?
How much did ordinary citizens (i.e., not politicians or funders) contribute to getting New York's marriage equality law passed? How important overall do you think popular support was in legalizing gay marriage in New York? What makes you think so?
What role did gay and lesbian activists and their allies play? How do you think their years of organizing for gay rights might have contributed to the passage of this bill?
2. Individual Motivations
Now that they've thought about the big-picture negotiating, ask students to break into their small groups again. This time, ask students to use a different color highlighter to mark the places in the reading that identify individuals with a personal connection to the issue of gay marriage. Then reconvene the group and have students share their examples.
Next, show students this 5-minute video of Mark Grisanti's speech before the New York state Senate. If you don't have access to YouTube, you might have students read the transcript of Grisanti's speech below:
"As you may know prior to me coming here — it's only been about 6 months — and the issue of same-sex marriage was never really a strong topic of discussion among family and friends. I simply opposed it in the Catholic sense of my upbringing.
And I have stated that I have a problem with the term marriage. But at the same time I also said that I have a problem with the rights that are involved that are being overlooked.
I have never in the past four months researched an issue or met with so many people and groups on a single issue such as this. I have struggled with this immensely, I can tell you that. I have read numerous documents, independent studies, talked with a lot of people on both sides of this issue.
As a Catholic I was raised to believe that marriage was between a man and a woman. I'm not here however as a senator who is just Catholic. I'm also here with a background as an attorney, through which I look at things and I apply reason.
I know that with this decision, many people who voted for me will question my integrity a short time ago. I tell you though that I have studied this issue. For those that know me, they know that I have struggled with it.
To those whose support I may lose, please know that in the past what I was telling you, and what I believed at that time was the truth. But by doing the research and ultimately doing what I believe to be the right thing, to me shows integrity.
I would not respect myself if I didn't do the research, have an open mind and make a decision — an informed decision — based on the information before me. A man can be wiser today than yesterday, but there'll be no respect for that man if he has failed in his duty to do the work.
I cannot legally come up with an argument against same-sex marriage. Who am I to say that someone does not have the same rights that I have with my wife who I love, or [to] have the 1300-plus rights that I share with her?
But there's another important point here that this bill brings up, and that's its religious protections. Because I am Catholic. Under this bill the religious aspects and belief are protected as well as for not-for-profits. There's no mandate that the Catholic Church or any other religious organization perform ceremonies or rent halls. There cannot be a civil claim or an action against the church. It protects benevolent organizations such as the Knights of Columbus and many others. And as a lawyer I feel confident that the religious organizations and the others are protected.
We in this state have recognized same-sex couples who are married in other states and are now in New York. I have read studies about civil unions that show that they do not work, and causes chaos. I believe this state needs to provide equal rights and protection to all of its residents.
I struggled with the word marriage as between a man and a woman - that's how I'm raised. But I also struggle with the rights that are lacking for same-sex couples, and I've stated this numerous times. I cannot deny that right or opportunity for someone nor stand in the way of allowing them to obtain the rights that I have.
I'm not going to get into the philosophical arguments, because I've heard them all. But for me the issue boils down to this. I've done the research, and my belief that a person can be wiser today than yesterday. I apologize to those who feel offended, to those who I have hurt with the votes I had six months ago, but I believe you can be wiser today than yesterday when you do the work.
I cannot deny a person, a human being, a tax payer, a worker or people in my district and across this state, the State of New York, and those people who make this the great state that it is, the same rights that I have with my wife. And I also can't ignore that one of the things that was put into this bill, that there are protections in this bill for church and religious organizations. And I am proud of that because I am fearful that those protections may be lost. If this bill fails, I believe that next time around these protections won't be there.
I vote in the affirmative, Mr. President."
Ask students to write down the one or two things Grisanti said that they found most interesting or most important, then ask students to share their thoughts with the class.
Ask students to discuss:
- What pattern do you notice in the reasons that people gave for supporting same-sex marriage?
- What might be positive about it?
It's uncommon for legislators to cite these personal connections when legislation comes up about other kinds of injustice. Why do you think this might be?
Read the following quote to students from an article by Max Read on Gawker.com.
"This is how things get done, in government, now! Rich people decide they want things, and then they use their money to get them. This works great when rich people, or their friends, or their families, are victims of injustice - which is what happened last night.
But there aren't a lot of millionaire libertarians on Medicaid [which provides healthcare coverage for low-income people], or getting food stamps, or looking for jobs! Which means that in those 'secret meetings' between the super-rich Republicans and the governor (or the president!), people on Medicaid don't get brought up very often - and bills (or budget deals) that might actually help them aren't presented, or lobbied for, almost ever. And until a libertarian-leaning philanthropist comes out as poor, or a billionaire Republican has a working-class son, don't expect that to change."
- Do you agree with Read's comments?
- How would Read's analysis affect the strategy you might use to get a new law passed to improve or expand a program like Medicaid or food stamps?
What was something surprising you learned today?
Has your opinion changed about gay marriage over the past year or two? If so, what happened to change your view?
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