City officials complain constantly that they cannot do what they need to do because of constraints imposed by Albany or due to a lack of legislation that only the state legislature can pass. But in the area of civil rights, New York City has gone far beyond what Albany has been willing to do -- and Albany is being pushed to go further. Funding for the state Division of Human Rights is shaping up to be an issue in this yearês gubernatorial campaign.
The New York State Human Rights Law forbids discrimination in jobs, housing, and public accommodations on the bases of age, race, creed, color, national origin, sex or marital status. The city law is much broader. It covers actual or perceived race, creed, color, age, national origin, alienage or citizenship status, gender (including sexual harassment), sexual orientation (including gender identity or expression), disability (including HIV/AIDS), status as victim of domestic violence, arrest or conviction record, and marital status. When cities around the state enact their own human rights laws, they must cover at least as much as the state covers but they may go further, as New York City has.
There have been many attempts to expand the coverage of the state human rights law, including an Assembly bill to forbid discrimination on the bases of height or weight (something the city does not cover but other jurisdictions do). Even a Children's Bill of Rights has been proposed for the state constitution. But these efforts have gone nowhere.
Given all the coverage that already exists in the state and city human rights laws, many civil rights groups and political leaders are focused on enforcement and implementation. In the city, Patricia Gatling, the new Human Rights Commissioner, has zeroed in on reducing the backlog of cases. Her initial goal of addressing all back cases by May has been extended to September, but she says that 1,750 complaints have been reviewed and 1,200 closed since she came on board this year. After losing 75 percent of its staff during the Giuliani years, the commission is slowly coming back.
The backlog of cases at the state level has emerged as an issue in this year's race for governor. The National Organization for Women's state chapter has had a lawsuit against the governor and the State Division of Human Rights since Mario Cuomo was governor over the inadequate funding for the division and the backlog of more than 10,000 cases. Complainants often wait seven to ten years before their cases are heard, if they are heard at all. The slow pace of the lawsuit led the women's group to support legislation to overhaul the division, but it was one of the many bills that died in Albany.
Comptroller H. Carl McCall served as State Commissioner for Human Rights under Governor Cuomo. Now that he is running for governor, he is making an issue of the breakdown of the state human rights agency, as is his Democratic rival, Andrew Cuomo. Both called for tripling the funding for the agency last January (from $12.7 million to $37 million), though Pataki's increase was about $35,000
For more than 30 years, legislators from the city have fought a losing battle to add sexual orientation to the state law. Led by out lesbian Assembly Member Deborah Glick (D-Greenwich Village), that bill has passed the Assembly by increasingly lopsided margins for more than ten years. But the Republican-controlled Senate has refused even to vote on it. Governor George Pataki pledged last year to "do all in my power" to pass the state gay and lesbian rights bill. His failure to produce is being made an issue by the Democratic candidates for governor, who are also pushing for a Vermont-style civil union bill that Pataki does not support.
The city has taken steps to extend rights to domestic partners in ways that the state has yet to. New York City established a domestic partners registry under Mayor David Dinkins in 1993 and since then 17,140 partners have signed up at the City Clerk's office, 31 percent of them in same-sex couples. City workers get domestic partner health benefits. No such registry exists at the state level, but some state employees do get domestic partner benefits.
The state does have jurisdiction over the domestic relations law and the State Health Department has interpreted the gender-neutral law nevertheless to limit marriage to one man and one woman. There was a lawsuit filed in New Jersey to obtain marriage licenses for gay couples, but there is no such active legal case in New York. City Council Member Alan Gerson is preparing a resolution for the City Council to call upon the state to recognize same-sex marriages. State Senator Tom Duane has had a gay marriage bill in the Senate since last year and Assembly Member Dick Gottfried announced June 30 that he will introduce a companion bill to Duane's in the Assembly.
Andy Humm is a former member of the City Commission on Human Rights. He is co-host of the weekly Gay USA on Channel 35 on Thursdays at 11 PM.