Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics


Civil Rights

Growing List of Park Rules Irks Some New Yorkers

central parks
A move to enforce "quiet zones" has silenced some musicians in Central Park.

For New Yorkers, parks are not simply aesthetically pleasing. In a city where people live in cramped spaces, parks offer a place -- an oasis -- to retreat from the chaos of the bustling sidewalks and colossal buildings. People go to these public spaces to read the paper on their lunch break, walk their dogs in the wee hours of the morning or sun bathe on a Sunday afternoon. Despite being public, parks provide New Yorkers with a kind of backyard -- a free space to enjoy a wide range of activities.

Lately, though, some New Yorkers have come to feel less free in their parks. In the past month, the New York City Parks and Recreation Department has started to enforce some highly contentious regulations. The city-wide smoking ban and the recent enforcement of quiet zones in designated areas of Central Park have garnered criticism from many New Yorkers. And the never-ending battle continues between artist vendors and the city government regarding sale of "expressive matter" in public parks.

While the administration maintains such controls make parks more enjoyable for all New Yorkers, some in the city wonder whether the government has over-regulated the parks, eroding their cherish role as a "free space."

Smokers Not Allowed

On May 23, New York City instituted a ban on smoking in its 1,700 parks, 14 miles of city beach and on pedestrian malls such as Times and Herald Square. If caught with a cigarette, violators can face a fine of $50. Although this new law will be enforced by park officials -- not police -- the parks department "expects that New Yorkers will ask people to follow the law and stop smoking." This ban expands Mayor Michael Bloomberg's 2002 anti-smoking regulation, which outlawed smoking in restaurants and bars.

Many New Yorkers have lauded this new regulation and believe it will contribute to a healthier environment.

"There is a demonstrated health and maintenance management issues around smoking. Cigarette butts present a real problem to the parks department. We are supportive of that policy," said Alyson Beha, director of research, planning, and programs at New Yorkers for Parks.

Although many New Yorkers agree with Beha, others argue that banning cigarette smoking violates the civil liberties of smokers.

In a phone interview, Audrey Silk, the founder of the smokers advocacy group CLASH (Citizens Lobbying Against Smoker Harassment said, "This isn't about public health; it's about control. It's a slippery slope." Silk believes that this issue is "not just about defending smoking" but a "matter of civil liberties that we are defending."

Silk and fellow CLASH supporters organized a "Smoke In The Park" protest on Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, on May 28 to express their contempt for the new smoking ban.

"There is no more trying to reason with the City Council and Mayor Bloomberg," said Silk, but her group plans to continue to press the issue. "We will never stop trying to get this done," she said.

Since the smoking ban went into effect on May 23, only one ticket has been issued by park officials. It went to a Daily News photographer who, for the benefit of a story, was hanging out on the High Line trying to get a ticket. She finally did, but not before, in the News' words, she and her colleague got " a first-hand look at the lax enforcement."

The Artists’ Plight

The fight over vendors goes back far longer. For years, New York's parks have served as a bastion for artists and vendors whose livelihood rests on sales to tourists and other park-goers. Artists from all over the city go to Manhattan's most celebrated parks to display their works --whether glorified paintings of New York or quirky souvenirs.

In the past year the city government has started to crack down on artists and other vendors who sell what is referred to as expressive matter in parks. In June 2010, the parks department proposed new limits, which designated where artist vendors could sell their artwork. They also limited the number of artists who could be present in one area (only one artist per spot). According to the department website, "expressive matter vendors may only vend expressive matter at the specifically designated spots identified by the commissioner."

central pak
Photo by Ed Yourdon
The administration has sought to restrict the selling of so-called expressive matter by vendors such as these in some of Manhattan's most popular parks.

The city wanted to enforce these new regulations in Central Park, the High Line, Battery Park and Union Square -- the four parks with the highest concentration of artist vendors. The city hoped that these new limits would decrease congestion on park sidewalks and pathways and allow for park-goers to enjoy the verdant scenery without the hustle and bustle of vendors.

This restriction spurred an uproar from parts of the artist community and others who felt it represented yet another curtailment of New Yorkers' civil liberties. Several artists sued the parks department, charging the rules infringed on their first amendment rights. The lawsuits have been going on for over a year within the state and federal courts. However, in May an appeals court ordered that a temporary restraining order be removed, allowing the city to proceed with enforcement of the limits.

Robert Lederman, the president of A.R.T.I.S.T. has been fighting the city government on this matter for years. "The whole idea of the first amendment is that the government cannot make laws that limit people's freedom of speech," he said. "If you can have giant advertisement banners in a park then why can't an artist show a picture?"

How Loud is Too Loud?

In the past few weeks, musicians also have come to feel they are a target of parks department rules as the city has started enforcement of "quiet zones" in Central Park. Eight of the park's most frequented spots, including Strawberry Fields and Bethesda Fountain, are now dotted with green signs officially designating them as "quiet zones" and prohibiting any musical instrument or amplified sounds. The signs have only been put up in Central Park so far.

"Quiet zones have been in place for decades. It's a new season. The parks are crowded. A lot park visitors want quiet zones. We are responding to all park users,” said Vickie Karp, a spokeswoman for parks department.

But for the many musicians who make their living playing in Central Park, these new quiet zones may end up costing them money. Tickets have been issued to musicians who have violated the rule, and there was even one arrest.

Vasyl Fomytskyi is a Urkainian cellist who has been playing in the hall of Bethesda Terrace for three and a half years. When asked about the new enforcement of quiet zones, he said, "I think it is very stupid. This spot has wonderful acoustics, and it makes our music sound even better. It is our right to play here."

Civil liberties and street artist advocates agree with Fomytskyi and the coterie of musicians who have practically become permanent fixtures in certain areas of Central Park.

Susie Tanenbum, cofounder of the Street Performer's Advocacy Projectbelieves, "Current policies framing artistic performances in New York’s streets and parks make it increasingly difficult for street musicians and dancers to exercise their First Amendment right to express themselves in public space,"

"And yet, for centuries, street performing has helped to make New York the vibrant cultural center that it is," she added.

Will the Battle Ever End?

Many New Yorkers feel that all these park restrictions constitute a clear breach of our first amendment rights.

James Keller immigrated to New York when he was in his early 20s and has lived here for 41 years. Keller believes that these regulations are yet another sign of governments trampling on our civil liberties.

"We are gradually starting to lose our freedom," he said.

Council Approves Increase in Exam Age for Firefighters


Dion Hines took the city's firefighter exam in January 2007.

Several days later, Hines explained at Lower Manhattan's Emigrant Savings Bank on Thursday, he turned 29 -- the age limit to take the exam and start the process to become one of New York's bravest.

Hines, now 32 years old, has yet to become a firefighter -- despite his high score on the test.

"It's a bit frustrating," Hines said. "I studied for two hours a day."

Hines and hundreds of aspiring firefighters have had their plans derailed because of a protracted court case, which struck down the city’s firefighter exam because of discrimination. Because of the case, the city has not hired a firefighter class since 2007, leaving Hines and others waiting.

To give them temporary reprieve, the City Council approved legislation Thursday that would allow men and women 35 years old and younger to take the next firefighter exam. After the next exam, the age limit would go back down to 29 years old.

Council Speaker Christine Quinn said the legislation would give aspiring firefighters stuck in limbo a second chance to realize their dream.

"We listened to their unique situation," said Quinn. "This bill is intended to right a wrong."

Temporary Housing Stats

In 2010, a federal judge in Brooklyn ordered the city to freeze the hiring of city firefighters after he found the city's exam discriminated against blacks and Hispanics.

The Fire Department is overwhelmingly white.

The federal court gave the city several options to start hiring firefighters immediately as a new exam was drafted. The Bloomberg administration rejected the choices, arguing they relied on race-based quotas.

Because of the hiring freeze, men like Hines have been sitting idle, while the department racks up significant costs in overtime.

"Once [the legislation] passes," said Hines of Brooklyn, "I can sleep good tonight."

The council approved the bill unanimously.

The Fire Department supports temporarily increasing the age requirement for the exam. But the city's firefighters union does not. The Uniformed Firefighters Association opposes the bill because, it argues, firefighters must be young. They contend the age increase would mean some firefighters could be "grandparents" and still scaling buildings under demanding physical conditions.

The proposal pricked at the soft spots of some council members, some of whom blasted the administration for not considering the federal court's options to hire firefighters now.

"By the mayor's lack of action, he's hurting firefighters and he's hurting New Yorkers," said Councilmember David Greenfield.

Others, however, sympathized with the administration.

"The [court's] decision is both arbitrary and capricious," said Councilmember Dan Halloran.

Minority members of the City Council lamented the lack of racial equity in the fire department and called for an exam that would help diversify the department.

According to the city's Law Department, a new exam is expected to be completed by the fall, despite the fact the case is still making its way through the courts.

Temporary Housing Stats and Human Rights

The council also unanimously approved legislation requiring the Bloomberg administration to provide citywide data on who receives temporary housing assistance. Currently, those statistics are done piecemeal agency by agency and are not consolidated.

The council also approved a bill to require the Human Rights Commission to develop programs on bias related harassment and repeated hostile behavior including conduct or verbal threats, taunting, intimidation, abuse, and cyberbullying. Currently the commission creates programs on creating "harmonious relationships."

Secure Communities Program: Should New York Stay or Go?

Photo by Jessamyn West

As early as this week, Gov. Andrew Cuomo could decide whether New York should withdraw from Secure Communities, a program that has local law enforcement agencies share digital fingerprints of those arrested with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement or ICE.

Some members of the legislature along with immigration advocates are pressuring Cuomo to leave the program. They charge Safe Communities has resulted in unnecessary deportations and has made many immigrants reluctant to go to the police. Calls to Cuomo's office were not returned.

Regardless, though, of what Cuomo would like to do -- and he has not spoken out on this -- a question remains of what he can do. Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn recently tried to opt out of the program and was told by the Department of Homeland Security that terminating the contract was impossible -- that the information would still be collected.

Sharing Images

Secure Communities is still being rolled out across the country and New York. According to ICE's Secure Communities website 41 percent of the country has been activated into the program and 44 percent of New York State -- including counties in Long Island, upstate and western New York. ICE is slowly activating more counties across the state. The effects are already being felt.

The plan is supposed to catch immigrants who are "hardened criminals," but ICE has admitted that 79 percent of the 102,000 immigrants deported under the program have never been convicted of any crime. Activists and legislators say the program has a dangerous and chilling effect on the relationship between immigrant communities and law enforcement.

"The fear is very real" said State Sen. Gustavo Rivera, "The program is designed to identify dangerous criminals, but 79 percent of those deported under the program have not been convicted of a crime. It makes people afraid who are victims or are witnesses of crimes. It breaks up families. It is not doing what it is supposed to do."

State Sen. Jose Serrano agrees: "Our communities are far less safe because of this program. Immigrants are forced far underground." Serrano says he hears horror stories "day in day out: victims of domestic violence who wouldn’t come forward -- they didn't want to stir the pot, get their families, or relatives in trouble, draw any attention. There have been stories about immigrants suffering under abusive landlords and employers."

From the program's inception in 2008 to May 2011, more than 7 million people have had their fingerprints reviewed by ICE. Of those, 197,000 were identified as likely illegal immigrants, with 40 percent of them in California.

The congressional Hispanic caucus is calling for President Barack Obama to place a moratorium on the program and the Homeland Security Department's Inspector General Charles Edwards plans to review it in 2012.

Opting Out

Gov. David Paterson signed on to the program in May 2010. Last week 38 New York legislators sent Cuomo a letter asking him to withdraw.

Legislators including Serrano met with a Cuomo staffer and were assured Cuomo shares their concerns. Now advocates and legislators have heard that the Cuomo administration will likely weigh in by the end of the week.

"I think the dialogue has been good," said Serrano of conversations with the Cuomo administration. "He [Cuomo] did inherit the situation. Gov. Paterson signed onto the program. But it is important we do all we can as a progressive state to legally opt out of the program to send the message that we respect our immigrants, that the legislation has failed, and we need comprehensive federal immigration reform."

Serrano added that he thought Cuomo showed great sensitivity as attorney general to issues involving new immigrants.

On May 4, Illinois' Quinn sent a letter to the federal department of Homeland Security informing them that the state would no longer participate in the program -- new counties would not be activated under the program and counties already activated would stop sharing fingerprint data.

Quinn charged that the implementation of Secure Communities was did not comply with the memorandum of understanding he had signed, which said the program would only target immigrants who were convicted of serious crimes."By ICE's own measure, less than 20 percent of those who have been deported from Illinois under the program have ever been convicted of a serious crime,” Quinn wrote.

But exiting Secure Communities wasn't that easy. The Department of Homeland Security informed Illinois that participation is mandatory.

This appears to contradict emails sent to New York state officials last year by Dan Cadman, a contractor working for ICE. In one, Cadman said, "No jurisdiction will be activated if they oppose it." Those communications were credited with convincing Paterson to participate in the program.

ICE director John Morton said Cadman misinformed Paterson.

Cadman countered that the "ambiguity" about whether a locality could opt out of the program came from officials much higher up the chain of command. He said he was instructed to mislead localities that had a large population of immigrants.

Recently Janet Napolitano, director of Homeland Security, said that the program will be mandatory for every state and every county by 2013.

Serrano said confusion still surrounds the process. "No one really seems sure about this. It would seem pretty far fetched for New York City, which is known for doing its own thing and has a history of protecting immigrant rights, to be part of this but if this is mandatory then over time it seems everyone would be sucked in," he said. "That is why it is so important we opt out now."

The Bloomberg administration did not return calls for comment. In the past Bloomberg's office has declined to comment on Secure Communities because it is a state and federal program. The administration, though, has come under fire from immigrant groups for giving the names of all people arrested to ICE, which then determines whether the individual is an immigrant who cold face deportation.


On May 18, the year anniversary of Paterson's decision to participate in Secure Communities, immigrant groups rallied in front of Cuomo's Manhattan office,urging him to opt-out. Although federal officials told Illinois it could not leave the program, the e-mails showing Paterson may have been misled has given advocates hope that Cuomo has ammunition to extricate New York from the program.

Mizue Aizeki, an organizer for Northern Manhattan Coalition for Immigrant Rights" who took part in the rally, said that she feels,"Momentum is building to stop it." She said that despite ICE's claim that participation is mandatory, Cuomo should opposed the program to bring more national attention to why it hurts communities.

Manisha Vaze, an organizer for Families for Freedom, said her group has been lobbying for New York to separate from the program since Paterson signed up. However, she says confusion over whether communities could opt out made things even more scary and uncertain for communities.

"The points are still murky, and it has created mistrust. It made the gap even wider for any contact between immigrant communities and the police." Vaze admits that it is unclear what actual impact the program has had -- how many people have been deported from New York.

"It is hard to gauge. We don't have any statistical information. It is hard to tell how communities are feeling but at the same time people are really scared," she said.

Despite the lack of hard numbers, Rivera thinks Secure Communities has done damage. "it has not done what he program is supposed to do," he said. "We know that 79 percent of individuals deported have no criminal record."

None of the five boroughs are currently enrolled in the program, but if New York remains in the program they probably would eventually be "activated." Serrano said he has tried to assure constituents that Mayor Michael Bloomberg's ecutive order 41 that allows city residents to seek help from city services without revealing their immigration status should keep them from fearing contact with the police. But he says word is getting out about Secure Communities and how many people have been deported.

In the case of giving the names of those arrested to federal authorities, the city has said Executive Order 41 does not apply.

"The mayor’s Executive Order 41 allows immigrants to gain access to city services and report crimes with no fear of being questioned about immigration status," John Feinblatt, the mayor’s criminal justice coordinator, said in a letter to the Times last month. "But when it comes to immigrants arrested for criminal activities, the executive order ensures cooperation with federal authorities."

Rivera said the time is ripe for Cuomo to act-- "right now there is a window of opportunity because we know New York signed the document to participate in the program under false pretenses."

Serrano thinks that New York's withdrawal from the program would send a huge message nationally and force the federal government to rethink its policies. "We have to let our voices be heard, we have to explain why it is bad."

Assemblywoman Grace Meng said that hopes Cuomo will opt out of the program but realizes that, with less than four weeks left in the legislative session, Cuomo has other priorities on his plate. "This is not an issue that is exclusive to session," she said. "I remain hopeful that the governor will act soon." ICE did not return calls for comment.

Bloomberg, Quinn Defend City Funding of Groups that Discriminate

 Staten Island St. Patrick's Day parade
Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly marched in this year's Staten Island St. Patrick's Day parade, even after it became widely known that organizers had barred a gay group from participating in the event.

The separation of church and state -- which may seem like a fig leaf in a city where groups with religious roots get hundreds of millions in city contracts -- has been ripped off entirely by the City Council. Through its member items, the council gives many thousands of dollars to groups whose stated purpose is to promote their religion -- and who use their religion to discriminate against gay groups. Such practices are legal -- though upsetting to gays and their allies -- if the group is truly private but not if it receives city funds.

City Council member-item funding went to three private, religious groups to run discriminatory St. Patrick's Day parades in contradiction of the council's own policy prohibiting such funding. When asked about this, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and Mayor Michael Bloomberg defended the practice, saying that the city may not discriminate against a parade's message even when city funding is involved.

The question, however, is not whether the parades should be allowed to take place -- no one disputes that -- but whether they can receive taxpayer money. Neither Quinn nor Bloomberg would respond to questions about whether giving member item money for such parades could open the door to city funding for even the most extreme messages, such as those of the Ku Klux Klan, who demonstrated in New York in 2004.

City Comptroller John Liu, several city and state legislators and the New York Civil Liberties Union criticized the funding, as did City Councilmember Daniel Dromm, a Democrat from Jackson Heights. But Public Advocate Bill de Blasio and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer stonewalled Gotham Gazette when asked about it.

Recently, press accounts have drawn attention to city and state funds going to Jewish organizations that discriminate against women. The instance of the parades, while involving smaller amounts of money, offers another vivid example of government officials sending taxpayer money to religious organizations, turning a blind eye to the groups' policies of violating city human rights law.

The Three Parades

At issue is City Council member item money going to the St. Patrick's Day Parade committees in Bay Ridge, which was funded by Councilmember Vincent Gentile; Throgs Neck, funded by James Vacca; and Staten Island, where the parade benefits from Deborah Rose's largess. Staten Island Borough President James Molinaro also funded the parade and would not respond to questions about the legality of the funding.

Unlike the St. Patrick's Day in Sunnyside run by St. Pat's for All and the observances of the holiday in Irish cities, each of these parades has declared itself a private, Catholic event. This allows the three to exclude any groups they want to -- most notably gays.

Many groups affiliated with religious organizations provide valuable services -- from running Little League teams to aiding the poor and the sick -- across the five boroughs. These groups receive city money. But their goal is not and may not be promoting religion, and they may not discriminate against any group, either in hiring or in the provision of services.

The City Council’s discretionary funding policies and procedures say: "All public funds, however awarded, must be used for a city purpose" and must be "open to members of the public, regardless of race, creed, gender, religious affiliation, etc., without restriction, and which does not promote a particular religion."

The three parades clearly violate that policy, but Quinn, who as council speaker has the authority to review all member items, is trying to say that parades are somehow exempt.

Her initial reaction to the funding flap was conveyed by her spokesperson Nicole Kolinsky: "As we look toward the FY2012 budget, all groups receiving discretionary funding from individual council members will be under review for future funding." But she did not answer questions about the appropriateness of the current funding or how she felt about it going to discriminatory groups who say their sole purpose is promoting a religious message.

When pressed, Quinn's communications director, Jamie McShane, wrote an e-mail: "I spoke with our general counsel today, here's what I have: There is a rigorous review process for City Council discretionary funds. However, as a former member of the Human Rights Commission, you are likely aware that the courts have ruled that government cannot regulate the message of a parade."

Bloomberg spokesperson Jason Post took a similar tact: "The mayor believes that parades should be open to all, those beliefs are well-known and often-repeated. Recipients of City Council grants are thoroughly reviewed, but the administration does not evaluate [grants to the] council recipients based on their message or beliefs, nor should we. The Supreme Court has held that government can't regulate the message of a parade by requiring that its organizers be more inclusive."

What the Law Says

Intentionally or not, Quinn and Bloomberg seem to be confusing the right to hold discriminatory views and even to discriminate in a private parade with the right to city money, which under law entails an obligation to serve the public and be open to all. Art Eisenberg of the Civil Liberties Union said that the city "cannot provide city funds to an organization not open to the public or that promotes a particular religion."

As McShane noted, I am indeed a former member of the city's Human Rights Commission. In 1991, we ruled that the big Fifth Avenue St. Patrick's Day Parade run by the Ancient Order of Hibernians was in violation of the city's human rights law. It excluded the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization and continues to exclude any Irish gay group with a banner but receives unique support from the city above and beyond the police protection all are entitled to. The Hibernians argued in court that its parade was a private, religious event and prevailed in an appeal of that decision. The parade does not, however, receive direct city funding.

The United States Supreme Court ruled unanimously in a case involving Boston's St. Patrick's Day Parade that it has a First Amendment right to exclude whoever its organizers wanted.

For the record, I support that decision and the right of any group to control its message in a demonstration or parade and exclude who they want, but I boycott -- as most city officials do -- those that discriminate.

Brendan Fay is co-chair of the inclusive St. Pat's for All parade in Queens, which includes not just Irish but gay and Korean groups, among many others. He brought to my attention that three of the exclusionary borough parades received city funds and that all the information was available on Gotham Gazette's Councilpedia, which lists City Council member item money.

Following the Money

State Sen. Tom Duane of Manhattan, who noted that he was arrested with Quinn protesting the Throgs Neck parade in 1999 said flatly, "They shouldn't get taxpayer dollars. We shouldn't fund discriminatory activity."

Quinn's press office refused to say whether she had noticed that the Bronx event at which she had been arrested received City Council funds.

State Assembly Member Micah Kellner, who represents Manhattan's East Side, said that state legislators may not direct member item money to groups that discriminate. "If you're a Catholic hospital, you have to serve the LGBT community," he said. And despite the fact that the Catholic Church teaches that gay people are "evil" and "disordered," Catholic agencies receiving government funds know they may not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation under city and state law.

Kellner said the issue of using state money to help fund a discriminatory parade has not come up, but that the Assembly's oversight arm is "looking to put together guidelines on it."

"I think it is dead wrong for city money" to be going to these discriminatory parades, he said. "They don't have a right to taxpayer money."

Liu's deputy comptroller, Alan van Capelle, said, "City funds shouldn't be used to discriminate against any people." But he said that his office only has oversight over relatively large contracts and that these contractors must <>comply with the city human rights law. Given that grants for the local St. Patrick's Day parades are in the $2,000 to $5,000 range, he said, "The Human Rights Commission is responsible for enforcing the human rights law. And the City Council own internal guidelines should be used to enforce the rules around discretionary funds. I don't see a distinction for parades."

Betsy Hertzog, a spokesperson for the City Commission On Human Rights, told Gotham Gazette, "We will look into it."

Since the council is interpreting its own policy as not covering this kind of discrimination, it may be up to a taxpayer or an aggrieved party to press them on it. Gerard Mawn, whose rejected application to the Staten Island parade led Quinn and others to boycott it, said, "They shouldn't get city money because they discriminate." He said he was discriminated against and he was considering taking steps to file a complaint about it.

Donna Lieberman, the executive director of the NYCLU, said the group is open to a lawsuit on the issue. She also noted that her group filed a friend-of-the-court brief defending the right of St. Patrick's Day parades to include or exclude who they want, but that that is different from supporting government funding for them.

The Council Response

In fairness to Councilmember Rose, the Staten Island parade committee had not declared itself to be discriminatory until after she had directed $2,500 in member item money to it. In early March, Quinn held a press conference with Liu, de Blasio, and Stringer condemning the Staten Island parade for nixing the participation of Staten Island Pride Events, a gay group.

Rose said she spoke to Jim Haynes III, president of the Richmond County Ancient Order of Hibernians, which runs the parade, after it excluded Mawn's group. The committee, according to Rose, feels the parade "is an observance of a religious holiday." That alone ought to exclude the group from city funding.

"If we give funds to a group that is religious, they have to prove to the City Council through a vetting process that they are open to everyone regardless of religious affiliation," Rose said. In this instance, though, it seems the discriminatory parades were never asked by council overseers whether they were willing to comply with the city human rights law in the conduct of their events.

Rose said that she "could not in good conscience give them public funds if they" continue to discriminate. She added that discussions are going on about the parade's future, but would not commit to denying them future funds yet. Haynes did not return repeated calls for comment.

Councilmember Vacca said he was not aware of the discriminatory policy of the Throgs Neck parade to which he directed $5,000. He promised to "review it," but after weeks of follow up calls and e-mails he did not release the results of his review nor offer his view on city funding going to discriminatory groups.

The same goes for Councilmember Gentile, a Democrat of Bay Ridge, who dodged questions about the appropriateness of the $2,000 in city funds he directed to the Bay Ridge St. Patrick's Day Parade. In an email, a spokesperson for the council member echoed Quinn, saying, "As of now, all fiscal year 2012 funding and applications for that funding are currently under review and will be approved/allocated by July 2011" -- a statement of the obvious, not whether his funding was appropriate.

Councilmember Dromm takes a more active approach. "Before I appropriate member item money, I want to know what a group's anti-discrimination policy is," he said. He does give money to a Catholic senior center, for instance, but he said that it welcomes gay couples.

St. Patrick's Day protests
Photo by Andy Humm
Irish Queers protest the Fifth Avenue St. Patrick's Day parade this year. That event does not receive city money, unlike some of the smaller parades, but some advocates question whether city officials, such as Mayor Michael Bloomberg should continue to march in it.

Fay's Lavender and Green Alliance applied to participate in the Bay Ridge Parade as recently as this year and got no response from organizers. Quinn, Liu and de Blasio, who are eager to be able to participate in all of these neighborhood parades, did not march in the Bay Ridge Parade -- or the one in Throgs Neck -- because they discriminate.

They Keep Marching

The support of city officials for the parades goes beyond the member items and police protection.

While some elected officials, including Quinn, Liu, de Blasio and Stringer, will not march in parades that discriminate, other officials continue to take part. (For more on that, see my. report in Gay City News.)

While Bloomberg may "believe" parades should be open to all, he marches in several that are not. After the gruesome anti-gay attacks in the Bronx last year, he wondered aloud where young people get the idea that it is OK to beat up gays. I asked him what kind of message he and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly send to young people when they march in anti-gay parades. Bloomberg said, "I don't think kids pay attention" to who marches in parades.

Quinn said at the press conference on the Staten Island parade that, although she would not march in it, she would not criticize those who do. Marching, she said, "is every individual's personal decision." She continued that she was not "going to judge any police officer or firefighter," who "would take a bullet for a gay person." But she added, "The organizers put people in a terrible situation."

Kelly has served as grand marshal of the Fifth Avenue parade. In response to a question about the exclusion of gays, he said, "Ideally, everybody should be able to go everywhere." But when asked if participating in a discriminatory event sends the wrong message, Kelly answered. "You have to look at the 250-year history of the parade."

Emmai Gelman of the group Irish Queers, which holds annual protests at the Fifth Avenue St. Patrick's Day Parade over its exclusion of gay groups, wrote to Kelly this year demanding that police and other city personnel stop marching in uniform given the discriminatory policy of the parade. She is not trying to stop individual members of the department from marching in civilian clothes or even from carrying a banner identifying themselves as from a police organization. The group has not gotten a response from Kelly and is contemplating a lawsuit.

More Groups, More Funds

The separation of religion and government has taken some other hits recently. Agudath Israel, the largest Jewish social service organization in New York, successfully got $18 million in the state budget this year for tuition assistance for rabbinical students despite such funding being nixed by Albany for years. City Hall newspaper reported that the funding was inserted by Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos in exchange for support from officials from Agudath for a Republican replacement for indicted Democratic State Sen. Carl Kruger of Brooklyn, a contention denied by Skelos' spokesperson.

The New York Times recently exposed the fact that the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council, a social service agency "that has received millions of dollars in government grants over the years," allows only observant male Jews who are either married, previously married, or over 30 to vote for its leadership. Eliyahu Federman, 26, a recent law school graduate, is challenging the male-only policy as unconstitutional.

The Crown Heights council, like Catholic Charities, is set up as a non-profit that is not a religious organization in order to qualify for government grants. It is obliged to operate in a non-discriminatory fashion in its hiring and in the provision of services.

Scores of groups with religious roots, from the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies to the Jewish Home and Hospital, provide valuable services in compliance with human rights laws. The ones that do not only come to light when someone who witnesses or experiences discrimination steps forward to complain.

Andy Humm, a former member of the City Commission on Human Rights, has been in charge of the civil rights topic page since its inception in 2001. He is co-host of the weekly "Gay USA" on Manhattan Neighborhood Network (34 on Time-Warner; 107 on RCN) on Thursdays at 11 PM.

State Recognizes Same-Sex Marriages But Not Weddings

same sex
Photo by Andy and Mike
New Yorkers demonstrated for marriage equality in 2009.

Same sex marriage is recognized in New York.

That is not a typo or wishful thinking by gay advocacy groups. While we all hear about the "fight" for what advocates call a "marriage equality" bill in the New York State Senate, the fact is that there are thousands of legally married same-sex couples in New York. They all got married elsewhere and have been recognized as such in New York under the legal principle of comity whereby one state gives effect to contracts agreed to in other states.

Here is a brief update on same-sex marriage in New York:

    Same-sex couples indeed cannot get married here until the state passes legislation opening marriage to them.
  • New York same-sex couples that legally wed elsewhere are recognized as married in New York for all purposes public and private except taxation.
  • No legally married couple in the United States, however, has any federal rights under the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which is being challenged in the courts and by some member of Congress, who hope to repeal it.
  • The New York State Assembly has three times passed a bill allowing same-sex marriage, led by chief sponsor Daniel O'Donnell, an out gay man waiting to marry his partner John Banta until they can wed in New York.
  • The State Senate had a vote on same-sex marriage last year, when the Democrats were in control, but it went down 38-24 despite pledges given by a majority of members to its chief sponsor Tom Duaneof Manhattan that they would vote for it. All Republican senators voted against the bill, and they are back in the majority. The effort is personal for Duane, too, who is waiting for the bill to pass before marrying his partner, Louis Weber.
  • Gov. Andrew Cuomo has saidthat he wants a marriage equality bill passed this year and has spoken out about it several times.
  • The latest Quinnipiac poll put support for same-sex marriage statewide at 56 percent with 37 percent opposed, the highest level of support ever.

How New York Recognizes Same-Sex Marriage

Under comity, New York recognizes marriages it does not perform as long as the marriage is not "affirmatively prohibited or proscribed by natural law." For example, New York does not have common law marriage as Georgia does, but if a common law married couple from there moves to New York or visits here they are still married. If, however, you are able to marry more than one person in another country, New York will not recognize that second marriage.

New York is one of a handful of states that never passed a state law or constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. Bills to do so went nowhere in Albany, and future efforts seem unlikely. The chief Assembly sponsor, Tony Seminerio of Queens died in prison in January where he was serving time for fraud, and the chief Senate sponsor, Serphin Maltese, lost his seat in 2008 to Democrat Joe Addabbo.

In 2004, then State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer issued a legal opinion saying that same-sex marriages should be recognized in New York. Later that year, then State Comptroller Alan Hevesi recognized legally married couples in the state pension system.

In 2006, New York's Court of Appeals ruled that it was constitutional for the state to continue to deny marriage licenses to gay couples, but that did not stop the state from continuing to recognize gay couples legally married elsewhere. Since then, state appellate courts have repeatedly affirmed that legally married same-sex couples must be recognized as such in New York, notably in the Martinez case in Monroe County.

Just recently, the courts here rejected a challenge to a will from the brother of a gay man who named his male spouse as his primary heir.

Even though the courts in New York have been unanimous in affirming the right of legally married same-sex couples to have their marriages honored in the state, couples may still encounter resistance. A gay New Yorker I know who married years ago in Canada and never had any trouble getting his marriage honored here recently changed jobs. His new employer told him it would only recognize federally sanctioned marriages.

The Taxation Exception

One time that New York does not recognize legally married gay couples is tax day. The state's tax law says people "must" file their state tax forms using the same marital status they use on their federal form. Since the federal government does not recognize same-sex marriages for federal purposes, such as taxes, immigration, Social Security and so on, New York State's Department of Taxation and Finance insists that married same sex couples must file as single.

In other states that recognize same-sex marriages, legally married gay couples file as married on their state forms, but as single on their federal returns. Since state taxes are based on federal ones, they have to do two federal returns: a real one, in which they file as single, to determine their federal taxes, and a dummy one, in which they file as married, to determine their state tax. It is indeed complicated and a boon for accountants.

O'Donnell introduced a bill last year to fix New York state tax law to allow this. It is now being pushed by Assemblymember Harry Bronson of Rochester, the sixth member of the legislature to join the LGBT caucus in Albany along with O’Donnell, Duane, and Assemblymembers Deborah Glick and Micah Kellner of Manhattan and Matthew Titone of Staten Island -- all Democrats.

Michael Sabatino and Robert Voorhies are a New York couple married for seven years. Besides not being able to file their taxes jointly, Sabatino can't get Voorhies on his health insurance policy. "My company is willing to insure him," Sabatino wrote in an e-mail, "but the insurance company will not recognize us as married. They consider us domestic partners and they require our company to have 50 employees to qualify and we don't.

Despite such problems, Sabatino wrote, "I always tell everybody go get married where it's legal and come back to NY [and] at least you will have recognition. Some people -- don't ask me why -- say, 'I want to wait until its legal in NY, my home state.' God only know why they want to wait for that reason."

The Federal Ban

When the issue of same-sex marriage heated up in the mid-1990s over a lower court ruling in Hawaii that gay couples were entitled to marry, Congress responded with the Defense of Marriage Act, which passed by a 5-1 margin and was signed by President Bill Clinton. While it does not prevent individual states from letting gay couples marry, it prohibits federal recognition of those marriages and gives the states the right not to recognize legal same-sex marriages from other states -- a right most states have exercised.

Hawaii, by the way, never allowed same-sex marriage but recently enacted a civil unions bill.

Times change. Sen. Charles Schumer voted for the Defense of Marriage Act as a House member but came out for marriage equality a few years ago. Bill Clinton now supports same-sex marriage, though Hillary Clinton, like President Barack Obama, says she still does not despite championing equal partner rights short of marriage.

The main challenges to the bar on the federal government recognizing same-sex marriages have come in the courts. A federal judge in Massachusetts, where same-sex marriage has been legal since 2004, ruled that the provision is unconstitutional.

In a New York case brought by the American Civil Liberties Unionn, Edie Windsor is challenging the Defense of Marriage Act because when her wife, Thea Spyer, died in 2009 she was responsible for more than $360,000 in estate taxes that she would not have been had they been a male-female married couple.

On March 22, a binational married lesbian couple will go to a New York immigration court to seek termination of removal proceedings for the foreign spouse. Cristina Ojeda, a U.S. citizen, is seeking a marriage-based green card for her wife, Monica Alcota, an Argentine citizen. It is the first such immigration case brought since Obama and the U.S. Justice Department announced in February that they will not defend the Defense of Marriage Act any more, calling it unconstitutional. They will still enforce the law, but the defense of the law in court has been left to the Congress, Republican House Speaker John Boehner has said that House leaders will hire counsel to do that.

It is hard to predict how the U.S. Supreme Court will ultimately rule on the act's constitutionality. The high court refused to even hear a 1971 challenge by a Minnesota gay couple who sought to marry. But the court struck down anti-sodomy laws in 2003. And back in 1995, it overtuned a Colorado constitutional amendment that barred civil rights protections on the basis of sexual orientation.

Even if the court rules that the federal government must recognize same-sex marriages, that would not mean every state would have to. States already have varying standards for heterosexual marriages with, for example, some states allowing marriages between first cousins and others barring it. We could end up with a situation where a gay couple from Alabama could marry in Iowa and be married for federal purposes when they go back home but not be recognized by their state.

The Politics in New York

The main political groups campaigning for a New York marriage equality bill do not advertise that marriage rights are available to gay couples already. They offer no guides on their websites on how same-sex couples in New York can get married, just appeals to get involved in the fight for the bill opening the marriage bureaus here to gay couples.

"As significant as it is that New York recognizes out-of-state same-sex marriages, it is just not the same as having them solemnized in New York state," said Donna Lieberman of the New York Civil Liberties Union. "We won’t have marriage equality in New York until we have marriage equality." She believes Cuomo's "commitment to make this a top priority" can make the difference in the legislative battle.

Advertising the chance to marry elsewhere "would be like saying, 'Don’t fight for it in New York. We don’t need it here,'" said Ron Zacchi, executive director of Marriage Equality New York. He thinks most gay people are aware of how they can marry, and the group answers many e-mails seeking information on how to go about it.

Zacchi feels "very good" about the prospects for passage of the bill this year. "Some Democrats who voted no are now open to it," he said.

With Republicans in a majority in the Senate, though, no GOP member has declared his or her support yet.

And there is opposition. The New York State Catholic Conference representing the state's Roman Catholic bishops, recently had a two-day lobbying effort in Albany that included defeat of the marriage bill as a priority. The leading opponent in the Senate is Democrat Ruben Diaz Sr., a Pentecostal minister from the Bronx.

Ross Levi, executive director of the Emire State Pride Agenda, the state's gay and lesbian lobby, said Cuomo's enthusiastic support could be key. "It makes a difference to have a very popular governor who is very sophisticated in dealing with Albany acting as a leader on our issues," Levi said. He attended a high profile meeting with the governor on the issue this month and said there will be more.

Levi has told legislators that many gay couples from New York marry out of state. He has urged the officials to "take the next step" by passing the bill to let them marry here so New York could get the economic benefits of the weddings. He said he has not gotten very far with that argument, but hopes business leaders who support the bill will help drive the point home.

O’Donnell said a lot of things need to happen for his bill to pass the Senate. "It won't come up until the budget passes," he said. "The polls are with us. No Republican senator on Long Island voted for it last time, but 70 percent of their constituents support it in some districts. We have to make the votes match the districts."

The Legal States

Marriage is open to same-sex couples in the District of Columbia and five states: New Hampshire, Vermont, Iowa, Connecticut and Massachusetts. Two other states recognize those marriages but will not perform them: New York and Maryland. While Rhode Island and New Mexico debate such recognition, the remaining states have either laws or constitutional amendments prohibiting recognition of same-sex marriages, so when a legally married couple travels to them, their marriage rights can be denied. Some other states provide limited domestic partnerships or civil unions. California, Illinois, Hawaii, New Jersey, Washington state and Oregon provide unions with all the benefits of marriage save the word and the portability.

California has the most complicated <> situation. On June 16, 2008, following a state high court ruling, gay couples -- including many from New York -- started marrying there. Some 18,000 got married before the voters passed Prop 8, a state constitutional amendment banning recognition of same-sex marriages, on Nov. 5, 2008. The couples that married during those five months still are recognized as married in California. And any gay couple anywhere that got married prior to Nov. 5, 2008 also is recognized as married in California. Gay married couples who wed after Nov. 5, 2008 and who move to California are recognized as full domestic partners there.

In August, federal judge Vaughn Walker ruled that the ban on same-sex marriages was unconstitutional. California did not appeal the ruling. The case is at the Ninth Circuit, which is taking a long time deciding whether anyone other than the government of the state has any standing to appeal Walker’s ruling. The group that got Prop 8 o the ballot is arguing that it does.

In the meantime, gay couples can still get domestic partnerships in California that carry all the rights of marriage save the name and portability. New York has never had a statewide civil or domestic partners bill, though the city does and some state employees are entitled to domestic partner benefits.

Ten countries recognize same-sex marriage: Argentina, Belgium, Canada, Iceland, the Netherlands (which was first), Norway, Portugal, South Africa, Spain and Sweden. Mexico City also does. As in New York, same-sex marriages are recognized but not performed in Dutch Aruba and Curacao, Israel, the rest of Mexico, Dutch Sint Maarten, and Japan under certain conditions. Civil partnerships are also recognized in most of the rest of Western Europe and parts of the rest of the world.

Check your local listings before traveling.

Andy Humm, a former member of the City Commission on Human Rights, has been in charge of the civil rights topic page since its inception in 2001. He is co-host of the weekly "Gay USA" on Manhattan Neighborhood Network (34 on Time-Warner; 107 on RCN) on Thursdays at 11 PM.

Bill Seeks More Disclosure by Anti-Abortion Pregnancy Centers

Jessica Lappin
Photo by Women's eNews
City Councilmember Jessica Lappin at a hearing on a bill she is sponsoring that would regulate so-called crisis pregnancy centers.

The City Council is considering legislation that would require crisis pregnancy centers run by anti-abortion groups to disclose that the facilities do not have medical licenses.

The city has about two dozen of these centers, many of them located in low-income neighborhoods and often near an actual abortion clinic (in at least one case, in the same building). They might have innocuous sounding names and even be listed in the phone book under "abortion services."

The intent of the centers, though, is clearly to encourage women to bear the child and then either keep it or give it up for adoption. Crisis Pregnancy Center of New York, for example, cites the so-called risks of abortion on its web site and argues: "When you choose to continue your pregnancy and keep your baby, you are about to undertake one of the most challenging and exciting journeys in life."

In some of the centers, personnel who have no medical background or license walk around in scrubs and perform pregnancy tests with store-bought kits, giving the impression that somehow they are health care professionals.

Dangers of Misinformation

While the crisis pregnancy centers take a variety of approaches, a few give women who fear they are pregnant misinformation regarding the consequences of abortion, according to the New York Civil Liberties Union. These deceptive tactics, pro-choice groups argue, have drastic consequences.

"It is critical that women have accurate information when they make important decisions about their health," New York Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Donna Lieberman testified during a City Council hearing on the issue in November. "Relying on false and misleading information or delaying medical care can have particularly detrimental effects for pregnant women. Both are more likely when a woman does not seek out a licensed medical provider because she believes she is already receiving care from medical professionals."

She continued, "If the woman chooses to carry her pregnancy to term, prenatal care is vital to ensure both the health of the prospective mother and the fetus. If a woman chooses to have an abortion, doing so within the first trimester is far safer and less expensive. ... Thus, tactics that delay or mislead women about the care they are receiving or discourage them from seeking care from licensed medical providers pose serious health risks."

In 2006, according to a report by NARAL Pro-Choice America, Rep. Henry Waxman of California released a study that found crisis pregnancy centers "often mislead and misinform teenagers about the medical risks of abortion." Investigators posing as pregnant 17-year-olds called more than two dozen centers and found that 87 percent of them provided either false or misleading information about the health effects of abortion.

"Specifically," the NARAL report said, "several center employees told the women that abortion increases the risk of breast cancer, despite the overwhelming medical consensus that no such link exists. In addition, callers were incorrectly told that abortion could cause 'permanent damage' that would affect their future ability to bear children."

Chris Slattery, president of one of the local groups under scrutiny by pro-choice activists, EMC Frontline Pregnancy Centers, confirmed to reporters that visitors to his centers would be advised that abortion causes breast cancer, an assertion pro-choice groups dispute. "Yes they would" be told, Slattery said, adding that the breast cancer link "is backed up by scientific evidence, a massive amount of scientific evidence that's being squashed, squelched and suppressed."

In City Council and Beyond

The City Council bill (Intro 0371), sponsored by Speaker Christine Quinn and Councilmember Jessica Lappin, draws from laws in Austin, Texas, Baltimore and Montgomery County, Md. It would require the centers to disclose they do not provide actual abortion services (some already do this voluntarily). If the centers do not have any licensed medical personnel on staff, they would have to state that as well both at their facility and on their website. And the center would have to keep client information confidential.

The Civil Liberties Union has suggested the city law also require centers to disclose that they are not actual medical facilities.

New York Rep. Carolyn Maloney is introducing federal legislation on the matter. Her bill would have the Federal Trade Commission bar these groups from advertising under the "abortion services" listing.

Required Speech?

While pro-choice groups tend to see regulation of the crisis pregnancy centers as a simple matter, the issue presents an ethical quandary for the Civil Liberties Union -- posing a possible conflict between women's rights and the right to free speech. In the city, the pregnancy centers do not receive any government money, which makes it harder for officials to put restrictions on the facilities.

Slattery of EMC Pregnancy Centers, told reporters, that the bill "is an outrageous attack on the First Amendment rights of law-abiding, helpful resource centers."

In an email alert, Slattery, who operates 10 centers in New York City, said the measure could bring "staggering fines, and probable shutdowns of our offices aimed at crippling our work."

Civil Liberties Union lawyers have made it clear that they do not want to infringe on anyone's right to actively oppose abortion. Instead, the group says, it has stepped into the City Council debate in an effort to balance reproductive rights with protecting the First Amendment.

Regardless of such attempts, if the bill passes, the groups that run the centers and their backers will likely take the issue to court on First Amendment grounds. And because anything involving abortion immediately becomes politically charged, courts would almost certainly apply strict scrutiny to the new requirements.

Meanwhile, NARAL plans to pamphlet outside some of the centers. The effect of direct action is two-fold: it informs the women who walk into the place that they were not entering a medical facility and is likely to spark debate on the issue.

"The pro-choice movement does not use that tactic enough," NYCLU staff attorney Katharine Bodde said during a meeting with activists in December. "I think part of the solution [to the issues of the centers] is to combat it with more speech."

Same-Sex Marriage, Abortion on Crowded Civil Rights Agenda

Photo by See-ming Lee
Despite demonstrations such as this one in Union Square last year, the State Senate in 2009 rejected marriage-equality in New York state. Advocates disagree on whether the new legislature might pass the bill.

While the current state legislature and Gov. David Paterson have been widely derided as dysfunctional, Donna Lieberman of the New York Civil Liberties Union said they achieved a great deal in at least one area. The crowd leaving Albany at the end of this month, Lieberman said, can boast a record that is "probably the most productive for civil rights and liberties in decades."

With the new Andrew Cuomo administration and a likely divided legislature as Republicans retake control of the Senate, civil rights advocates may soon look back fondly on 2009 and 2010 -- despite the defeat of same sex marriage. During this time, the state enacted reform of its draconian Rockefeller Drug Laws, the Family Health Care Decision Act, the law ending the New York Police Department's practice of keeping a computer database of innocent people who are stopped and frisked, the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, the Census Adjustment Act that, for purposes of redistricting, will count prisoners in their home districts instead of where they are incarcerated, the Dignity for All Students Act that steps up the battle against school bullying, and the wage theft law, the just-signed measure that increases penalties for employers who steal money from workers by paying them less than the minimum wage.

Yet advocates for an array of rights groups say much remains unfinished. While same-sex marriage may top the list, the legislature also will consider bill a bill banning discrimination on the basis of gender identity and expression as well as a raft of issues concerning women's rights, the rights of the disabled, religious freedom and ending racial disparities in education and housing.

Cuomo's Record

Gov.-elect Cuomo didn't talk much about civil rights issues during his gubernatorial campaign nor did he emphasize them in his four years as attorney general. But given how openly racist, sexist and anti-gay his Republican opponent Carl Paladino was, he looked like a leader on civil rights in comparison.

Cuomo's 224-page platform, The New NY Agenda: A Plan for Action, while chock full of reforms, does not stress civil right issues. In it, Cuomo does endorse marriage equality, reproductive rights, and breaks for "minority and women-owned businesses." He also pledged to fight harder against hate crimes and domestic violence. The relevant section bears the title "New York Leads," but the state has been a leader on few of these issues. Cuomo proposes some advances and fixes as do advocates, but it remains to be seen if the new Republican-led Senate or the still Democrat Assembly will cooperate.

Schools, Jobs and Taxes

For African-American civil rights leaders whose landmark legislation passed more than 40 years ago, the focus is on continuing racial disparities.

Hazel Dukes, president of the New York State Conference of the NAACP, who serves on Cuomo's transition team, said the civil rights issues that most concern her now are "employment, education, and diversity in decision-making and staffing." "Paterson made a good beginning, but blacks and Latinos have seen the gaps continue to widen in terms of salaries and wealth," she said.

andrew cuomo

State Sen. Billl Perkins sees education and economics as key. "For us, education is a civil rights issue second to none, especially in terms of public education that is fully funded and professionally led," he said taking a dig at Mayor Michael Bloomberg's appointment of publishing executive Cathie Black as the new schools chancellor.

Echoing Dukes' concerns on the economic divide, Perkins said, "The gap between the haves and have-nots is growing. We're going to have to pressure the governor and my colleagues not to turn a blind eye and accept the trend just because it is the easiest way out. Hell will be paid later. There is great wealth being consolidated. Policies being proposed will increase that wealth. I don't subscribe to that. We need to work at a more responsible tax policy."

Women's Rights

The state chapter of the National Organization for Women will push for the Reproductive Health Act, according to the group's president, Marcia Pappas. An effort to ensure that New York women would have the right to choose in spite of efforts in Congress and other states to overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade decision, the bill would remove regulation of abortion from the state's penal code where, advocates say, it is treated as a potential crime and instead "regulate it as a matter of public health and medical practice." Cuomo supports it.

In general, Pappas takes a somewhat negative view of the outgoing legislature largely because it voted to have New York join all other states in allowing for no-fault divorce. NOW opposed this move because they say no-fault disadvantages the less affluent spouse, usually the woman. "We have to see how that plays out," she said.

Pappas also wants to revive the campaign for a state Equal Rights Amendment banning discrimination on the basis of sex. The national amendment failed when it was not ratified by its 1982 deadline. Voters overwhelmingly rejected the New York State amendment in 1975, but then Gov. Mario Cuomo reintroduced it in 1984.

"It's something long overdue," his spokesperson, Tim Russert, said at the time. "Our chances for success are large." It has languished in the legislature since.

The Rights of Workers

The state's Catholic bishops, represented in Albany by the Catholic Conference, have long opposed much of NOW's agenda -- particularly with regard to abortion rights -- although they joined the women's group in opposing no-fault divorce.

For 2011, Dennis Poust, the group's executive director, said education and housing would be their top priorities in the coming term, particularly an education tax credit of about $2,500 to partially cover parochial school tuition.

On civil rights, the conference will continue to push the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act, which is backed by the New York State Labor-Religion Coalition and many more progressive legislators.

"The bill guarantees farmworkers basic protections -- like overtime pay, a day of rest and the right to collective bargaining -- that have been denied them for generations," the New York Times wrote in its supportive editorial.

The Rights of the Disabled

Disability rights groups have a lot on their plate for the next session. They are particularly concerned about deep cuts in the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's Access-a-Ride program. It is ending many destination-to-destination rides in vans in favor of driving people in wheelchairs to and from a bus stop where they can complete their trip, adding considerable time to their commutes.

Housing issues also are a priority, said Edith Prentiss, vice-president of Disabled in Action and president of the 504 Democratic Club for people with disabilities. She said that, while the Senior Citizens Rent Increase Exemption freezes rents for older people with household incomes up to $29,000 a year no matter how many people live in the home, the Disabled Rent Increase Exemption applies only to individuals with incomes under $19,000 or couples making $27,780 or less. "Seniors have a much easier application form, too," Prentiss said.

Prentiss e-mailed a long wish list of things people with disabilities need from the federal, state, and city governments. It ended, "a state/office agency that truly serves all New Yorkers with disabilities."

Marriage Equality

Perhaps the largest piece of unfinished business on the New York's civil rights agenda is the state's failure to allow same-sex couple to legally marry here. Thousands of gay couples have gone to other states like Connecticut and to Canada to marry legally. New York recognizes these marriages -- something that has always been true but was confirmed by the state Court of Appeals in cases brought by the Civil Liberties Union this year. New York still, though, closes its marriage bureaus to same-sex couples.

The bill allowing same-sex couples to marry in New York State has been passed by the State Assembly three times but rejected by the Senate 38-to-24 in December 2009. Some of those nay votes were cast by senators who had privately committed to vote for it but abandoned ship when they saw the measure going down.

Gay rights groups poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into State Senate campaigns in 2010 to defeat opponents of marriage equality and protect senators who voted for the bill. They had mixed results. The Senate is now in Republican control, which does not bode well given that no Republican senator voted for the marriage equality bill, though several had privately pledged to. Sen. Dean Skelos, who will be back as majority leader, told the gay Log Cabin Republican club in October that his conference "would say, put [the marriage bill] up, let it up," but he subsequently did not promise a vote on it.

"Our community needs to hold his feet to the fire on that, said Paul Schindler, editor of Gay City News who has covered the story extensively. While the overall count of committed votes in favor of same-sex marriage increased by a net of two after the election, Schindler believes that some Republicans will have to voice support for the bill before the Republican conference will vote it to the floor.

Cuomo has declared his strong support for marriage equality and wants it passed on his watch, Schindler said. But he added Cuomo "is not as comfortable with our community as Gov. Paterson was" and will need some prodding, especially from Speaker Christine Quinn, the politician in the gay and lesbian community who is "probably closest to him." Quinn has adamantly refused to marry her partner, attorney Kim Catullo, until it is legal to do so in New York.

Sen. Tom Duane felt betrayed by some of his colleagues after the 2009 vote. But, he said, "We have a good chance to pass marriage equality now."

"Andrew Cuomo is a strong supporter of marriage equality and it doesn't matter who is in the majority," he explained. Duane also noted that the Senate under Republican control passed the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act and the hate crimes bill.

Assembly Member Daniel O'Donnell, who three times led his house to passage of the marriage bill, also expressed optimism. He wrote in an e-mail that, while a few Assembly members who voted for marriage equality in the past lost in 2010, "I'm still very confident that we can get the bill passed again."

As for the Senate, O'Donnell wrote, "I'm still very hopeful" it will pass given the "solid majority of New Yorkers in favor of marriage equality."

Poust of the Catholic Conference disagreed. "I don't see it passing. I'd be surprised it if did end up on the floor," he said.

Bruce Kogan, a veteran gay activist in Buffalo, shares that opinion. "I think the chances are pretty bleak not because of Cuomo, but because the Senate flipped back to the Republicans," he wrote in an email.

The Assembly has passed the Gender Identity and Expression Non-Discrimination Act, protecting transgendered people from discrimination, by wide margins in the past, and O'Donnell believes it will easily pass his house again. It has not passed the Senate.

O'Donnell also plans to introduce an expansion of the state anti-bullying bill passed last year to extend it beyond covering students in grade kindergarten to 12 to college campuses and adding a cyber-bulling component.

Ross Levi, who took the helm of the Empire State Pride Agenda, the state's LGBT lobby, this year has set the marriage and transgender rights bills as 2011 priorities. He also is concerned about funding for lesbian and gay human services programs in light of Cuomo's vows to cut services and not raise taxes. "I see a good path toward getting a vote next year" on the marriage bill, he said, but was making no firm predictions. "We're working like crazy to have the votes [on both bills] as soon as we can."

Levi cited same-sex marriage supporter Tony Avella's victory in a Queens Senate contest over longtime GOP incumbent Frank Padavan, who was strongly backed by Mayor Bloomberg, as a watershed. "We identified 2,000 new supporters and registered 2,000 new college student voters," he said.

Avella won by more than 3,000 votes and while many factors were in play, the concentrated attention of the gay community made a difference, Levi insisted, that he hopes will send a message to all state senators.

Washington's Job

Immigrant rights are mostly a federal issue and were not advancing even under a Democratic president and Congress. With the new more conservative Congress, comprehensive immigration reform will be even harder to pass.

New York City and state have traditionally been more welcoming of immigrants--including the undocumented -- even under Republican-led administrations. New York officials reacted strongly to the wave of anti-Mexican bias attacks on Staten Island this summer. Mayor Michael Bloomberg took a principled stand against the anti-Muslim bias that was being whipped up to stop the Park 51 Islamic center. And immigrant rights groups such as Make the Road New York were in the vanguard of getting the Wage Theft bill enacted recently, a measure that will aid immigrant workers especially.

Most of the issues on the state and local agenda going forward for Make the Road and allied groups have to do with the rights of immigrant workers who often are exploited because of their status. Cuomo echoes these concerns in his platform, promising to "continue to make sure that these communities do not face discrimination and receive fare wages and a safe workplace."

Now that groups like the Sikh Coalition have been successful in getting anti-bullying laws and policies enacted at the city and state level, the focus is going to be on full implementation of them. As with all outsider groups that achieve legal protections, the fight is never over.

Andy Humm, a former member of the City Commission on Human Rights, has been in charge of the civil rights topic page since its inception in 2001. He is co-host of the weekly "Gay USA" on Manhattan Neighborhood Network (34 on Time-Warner; 107 on RCN) on Thursdays at 11 PM.

Beyond the Mosque: Bloomberg and New York's Muslims

Photo by Ben Piven

When Mayor Michael Bloomberg strongly defended the proposed Islamic community center and mosque near Ground Zero last August even as polls showed most New Yorkers opposed the project, he garnered some favorable media coverage and praise for his stance.

A New York Times editorial called Bloomberg "the leader with the courage to make the case" for the center. Tom Robbins, a Village Voice columnist and frequent critic of the mayor, wrote, "Mike Bloomberg did a brave and good deed for this city" when he spoke out in favor of the project, known as Park 51. Errol Louis called Bloomberg's speech on Governors Island defending the proposed center "the finest speech of his career." And the New York chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim civil rights organization, praised Bloomberg for "defending the rights of Muslims and other Americans to build houses of worship."

The mosque, while significant, is just one issue. Beyond that, many Muslim groups, faith leaders and activists who have applauded Bloomberg's forceful defense of Park 51 say his administration has had a mixed and at times disappointing track record on policies affecting the Muslim community. Among other issues, they cite his failure to speak out on proposals for other mosques around the city, his refusal to provide a school holiday for Muslim holy days and the attitude of the police department toward Muslims in the city.

"We appreciate that Bloomberg came out and took a stand in a very difficult political moment, particularly a backlash against Muslim communities," said Monami Maulik, the executive director of Desis Rising Up and Moving, a grassroots activist group serving the South Asian community. "On the other hand, we also saw it as window dressing in many ways because the bottom line is that it's the policies and practices that the administration puts in place that affects the members of our community day to day."

A Range of Concerns

An estimated 800,000 Muslims live in the city, and their numbers are growing. Not surprisingly, they have an array of concerns -- extending far beyond a mosque in lower Manhattan. Interviews with a wide array of Muslim community leaders indicate that the Bloomberg administration and the city's Muslim community have a complicated and nuanced relationship.

"It is a work in progress," said Adem Carroll, the former executive director of the Muslim Consultative Network and the former coordinator for the Islamic Circle of North America's 9/11 relief program. "He has hired some Muslims as commissioners who work very hard at being liaisons. He himself does not visit our community members very much, at least that's the perception."

Robina Niaz, the founder and executive director of Turning Point for Women and Families, a non-profit organization that seeks to address domestic violence within the Muslim community, said she has seen a "marked change in the last several months" toward the positive in how Bloomberg is perceived in the Muslim community.

Imam Al-Hajj Talib 'Abdur-Rashid, an African-American leader at the Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood in Harlem, describes the relationship between the Bloomberg administration and the Muslim community as "strained." But he said, "There has been a demonstration of some political sensitivity on the part of that administration toward some issues of importance to the Muslim community." For example, 'Abdur-Rashid said, after a September 2009 fire badly damaged a mosque in the Bronx that served a large West African Muslim community, "the Bloomberg administration was a great help and assistance to them, helping them to find a temporary place to worship."

However, a consensus exists that the Bloomberg administration needs to reach out more to the Muslim community, especially in a difficult political climate for Muslims.

"Just because he supported Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and Park 51, that doesn’t mean every other issue should be taken off the burner," said Niaz.

In an interview, Fatima Shama, a Palestinian-American Muslim who is the commissioner for immigrant affairs under the Bloomberg administration, forcefully defended the administration's efforts.

Bloomberg "has engaged with the Muslim community more than any other mayor in this city," said Shama, noting that she was the first Muslim hired to be commissioner of immigrant affairs. Shama also pointed out that Bloomberg holds an annual Iftar dinner, to mark the fast breaking during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

The Voice of Reason

With anti-Muslim prejudice seemingly on the rise across the country, many Muslims in New York would like the mayor to go beyond his speech on the mosque and community center near Ground Zero. In particular, they wish he would speak out on the battles over proposed mosques elsewhere in the city. In the Midland Beach neighborhood of Staten Island, the board of a Catholic Church blocked plans for a proposed mosque when, in the face of harsh condemnation, they refused to sell a vacant convent to a Muslim organization. In Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, a proposed mosque and community center has also sparked controversy.

"Bloomberg this time around chose to stand on the right side of history on the Park 51 controversy by making that eloquent speech, but I don't think that he should stop there. I think he's positioned uniquely as a mayor, as a national leader, to lead the charge against Islamophobia if he really wants to redeem himself in the eyes of Muslim New Yorkers considering that he's failed them a few times," said Debbie Almontaser, the founder and former principal of the Khalil Gibran International Academy, the city’s first dual-language Arabic public school.

In 2007, many Muslims and other New Yorkers believe, Almotaser fell victim of that prejudice when a right-wing campaign targeted the school and Almontaser. Following an article in the New York Post that claimed she "downplayed the significance" of T-shirts bearing the word "intifada," she was "forced to resign following a directive from Bloomberg, according to Almontaser. Earlier this year, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission determined that the Department of Education discriminated against Almontaser and "succumbed to the very bias that the creation of the school intended to dispel."

Almontaser's resignation remains on the mind of many community leaders.

Perceptions of the mayor’s actions don't stop at New York's borders. While Bloomberg does not have a role in formulating foreign policy, many Muslim activists disapprovingly cited his staunch support for Israel, and specifically his January 2009 visit to Israel while the country waged an assault on the Gaza Strip in Palestine.

"His relationship with Israel, supporting Israel with no limits, hurts us," said Zein Rimawi, a member of the New York City-based Arab Muslim American Federation. "Don't forget: We are Arabs, we are Muslims, and the people in Gaza are Arabs and Muslims and we support them."

Under Suspicion

In addition, Muslim leaders have concern about New York Police Department counter-terrorism practices in the Bloomberg era. Civil rights organizations like CAIR-NY and DRUM have of police harassment of Muslims in New York.

Arguably the biggest irritant came when the police department released a 2007 report, titled Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat. The report detailed the process by which it saw some American Muslims as being "radicalized" into terrorists and said that, while Americans Muslims are "more resistant to radicalization than their European counterparts, they are not immune."

The Council on American-Islamic Relations promptly criticized the report, saying, "Its sweeping generalizations and mixing of unrelated elements may serve to cast a pall of suspicion over the entire American Muslim community." In the wake of the report, the Muslim American Civil Liberties Coalition formed and critiqued the report for presenting "a distorted and misleading depiction of Islam and its adherents."

Following meetings with Muslim organizations, the police department quietly issued a two-page clarification that stressed that the "NYPD's focus on al Qaeda inspired terrorism should not be mistaken for any implicit or explicit justification for racial, religious or ethnic profiling."

While Muslim organizations welcomed the clarification, criticism of the report remains.

"It's not clear what the NYPD really thinks, because it's leaving the bulk of its assertions and its conclusions in place," said Faiza Patel, who works with the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security Project. The clarification "didn't address all of [the Muslim community's] concerns. The way it was done -- really kind of hidden there -- makes it seem as if the police department is talking out of two sides of its mouth."

The police did not respond to requests for comment. But Shama defended the department, saying it has many Muslims in the police force and also has a Muslim Officers Society whose mission includes promoting "a mutual understanding between the NYPD and the Muslim community."

"I don't think there are any broad brushes or generalizations in the report," said Shama, when asked about Muslim community leaders' criticism of the document. "But we do have a policy that if you see something, say something. … It's a new day in a new country," she said, referring to the post-9/11 world.

No Days Off

Bloomberg's opposition to closing public schools on two Muslim holidays -- Eid Ul-Fitr and Eid Ul-Adha -- disappointed many in the Muslim community -- particularly after the City Council approved the change in the school calendar. In July 2009, the New York City Council passed a nonbinding resolution calling for the inclusion of Eid Ul-Fitr and Eid Ul-Adha, two Muslim holidays, into the school calendar. Underscoring the issue, parent-teacher conferences this year are being held today, which is also Eid Ul-Adha.

The administration opposed the measure, saying that the school system can't celebrate every holiday. "One of the problems you have with a diverse city is that if you close the schools for every single holiday, there won’t be any school," Bloomberg has said.

Shama said the Bloomberg administration "absolutely listened to all the requests and concerns of the school holidays coalition" before taking its position. Despite that, 'Abdur-Rashid said, the administration stand "left a very bad taste in the mouths of many Muslims."

Faiza Ali, the director of community affairs for CAIR-NY, said her organization is still pursuing the issue. "We're looking to the leadership of the mayor and chancellor…[to] re-tool the school calendar to fit the needs of the community," she said.

Alex Kane blogs on Israel/Palestine and Islamophobia in the United States at, and you can follow him on Twitter here. His work has also appeared in Mondoweiss, Salon, The Electronic Intifada, Common Dreams, Palestine Chronicle and Alternet. He is a former intern at the Gotham Gazette.

Much of Transit System Remains 'Out of Service' for the Disabled

Photo by Fredo Alvarez

Last month, advocates for the city's disabled filed suit against the Metropolitan Transportation Authority for failure to adhere to requirements of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act while making renovations at Manhattan's Dyckman Street station on the Number 1 subway line. The groups claim the authority violated the act by not allocating 20 percent of the project's budget for improvements in accessibility, including the installation of ramps or elevators. Renovation costs are projected to be about $20 million.

For many activists, this failure is the latest in a long history of discrimination by the MTA and the city -- discrimination that makes it difficult for many New Yorkers to travel throughout their city. According to the suit, whose plaintiffs include the United Spinal Association and Disability Rights Advocates, only 86 -- or 18.5 percent -- of all subway stations are accessible to people with disabilities. That leaves 382 inaccessible.

"It is an absolute disgrace that 20 years after the ADA was passed, more than 80 percent of the subway stations in New York are inaccessible,” Julie Pinovar, an attorney for Disability Rights Advocates, said in a press release. While the agency has "no duty to put elevators everywhere," Pinovar said in an interview, "incremental access such as ramps to Metrocard machines would help.

Beyond subway station access, disability advocates fault the transportation authority for relying too much on -- and then cutting-- the Access-a-Ride program, the city's paratransit service. As for the city, they say it has not done enough to encourage, if not compel, taxi cabs to be accessible for riders in wheelchairs and others with physical handicaps.

Getting to the Platform

The issue of subway access has a long history, dating back even before the Americans with Disabilities Act passed in 1990. The United Spinal Association -- then known as the Eastern Paralyzed Veterans Association -- first sued the Transit Authority in 1979. An agreement was reached in 1984 to make 100 "key" stations fully accessible by 2020. Currently, the MTA is ahead of schedule with 89 -- instead of the planned 67 -- completed in that time frame, according to Deirdre Parker, MTA press liaison. More than 110 MTA stations meet the requirements of the disabilities act. All MTA buses can accommodate wheelchairs and other mobility devices.

Many of these stations, Parker said in an e-mail, are equipped with AutoGate, "an automatic entry/exit gate that allows customers who have ambulatory disabilities ... to enter and exit the subway system." She said some stations that are not accessible also have these gates to help customers who are accompanied by service animals.

Advocates, though, do not think the transit authority deserves much praise for these efforts. For one thing, they say, some stations are only partly accessible. A given station may have an elevator from the street to the mezzanine level but not to the subway platform, or from a platform to the mezzanine but not to the street. In these cases, accessibility becomes a cruel joke. There are countless examples of wheelchair-bound riders having to call 911 and being carried by firefighters or emergency medical technicians just to exit the system.

Out of Service

Stations considered accessible become instantly inaccessible to many disabled people when the elevator goes out of service -- something advocates and others say happens all too frequently.

In 2006, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer’s office released a report on the MTA's shabby record of keeping the system's elevators and escalators in working order. Entitled "State of Repairs," the report details the authority's failure to comply with city law mandating elevators and escalators be inspected and tested a minimum of five times every two years. It found an average of 78 percent of elevators in Manhattan did not receive a mandated inspection each year between 2002 and 2005. For elevators in ADA-compliant stations, an average of 74 percent did not receive a mandated inspection. For escalators, that figure was 58 percent.

In 2007, the MTA began posting a list of broken elevators and escalators on its website to help users better plan their travel.

Average repair times, however, have barely changed since Stringer's report. In 2006, his office found the average elevator is out of service 10 days a year, and the average escalator is out of service 8 days a year. In 2008, the New York Times reported, "One of every six elevators and escalators in the subway system was out of service for more than a month," in 2007 based on transit authority data.

City Comptroller John Liu’s office released an audit of elevator and escalator repairsearlier this year, which revealed among other findings, "More than one fourth (27 percent) of the required preventive maintenance assignment for the test periods reviewed were not performed; scheduled maintenance system work is not constantly performed; five-year safety tests were lacking or not properly performed."

Taking Advantage of Renovation

Regardless of the number of accessible stations, advocates believe the transit authority should take advantage of projects, such as the one at Dyckman Street, to bring stations into compliance. James Weisman, general counsel for the United Spinal Association, called the renovation an "opportunity overlooked."

For the disabled, "the station is a transit waste land if you can’t climb the stairs, " Edith Prentiss, vice president of legislative affairs for Disabled In Action of Metropolitan New York and co-chair of the Taxis For All Campaign, wrote in an email.

"There are no buses on Dyckman," complained Prentiss, who uses a wheelchair and lives in the neighborhood. "The only accessible place to fill a MetroCard is the 207th Street A train on Broadway. MetroCard vans and buses are not accessible, either."

The MTA won’t comment on pending litigation, but said its plans for Dyckman Street include:

  • repairing stairs from sidewalk into station;
  • replacing stairs from control area to platforms;
  • demolishing and reconstructing north and southbound platforms;
  • installing new platform windscreens and repair guardrails.

The class-action suit has been filed in federal court for the Southern District of New York.

Above Ground

This is not the only legal action on disabled access confronting the transportation authority. In August, several disability-rights groups including Disabled in Action of Metropolitan New York and Brooklyn Center for the Independence of the Disabled sued the MTA, alleging its budget cuts disproportionately affected the disabled and elderly and violated a different provision of the disabilities act. Those cuts eliminated 89 bus lines -- particularly routes traveling between boroughs -- and slashed service on Access-a-Ride. Additional cuts eliminating station agents have also been points of contention, since riders can become stranded.

Access-A-Ride has long been controversial, both within the disabled community and between the disabled and the transit authority. Some fault the MTA for relying too much on paratransit, instead of upgrading its subway stations.

Weisman, who was involved in the 1979 lawsuit, said the MTA made an "unfortunate choice and believed the hype [about] paratransit being cheaper than an accessible system."

According to Weisman, transit officials believed Access-a-Ride would only cost $9 million a year, but that figure has now ballooned to $450 million. Disabled riders made 5.8 million trips on Access-A-Ride in 2008. Each Access-A-Ride costs the authority about $66, but riders pay only the standard transit fare. The cuts aim to reduce the number of trips by about 26,000.

Echoing Weisman, Prentiss said, "the MTA made a stupid decision in the 1980s when ... they [were] foolishly relegating people with disabilities to Access-A-Ride, not realizing how the cost would grow over the years if they didn't do more than make buses accessible. For years, bus lifts were as unreliable as subway elevators are today."

Access-a-Ride consists of eight different for-profit firms with often lax oversight by the MTA.

The city Taxis & Limousine Commission authorized dollar van services to replace five of the eliminated bus routes, but they are not necessarily equipped with wheelchair lifts. Because of this, groups representing the disabled just filed another lawsuit in federal court, this time against the taxi commission.

Challenging the basis for that suit, commission spokesperson Allan Fromberg wrote in an email, "We've made many public statements to the effect that these vans were never meant to replace the bus lines and in fact could not have possibly done so." Two of the van lines have already been discontinued due to lack of demand.

Cabbing It

Some disabled riders feel shut out of traditional taxis as well. Last year's Taxi for Tomorrow Request for Proposal created quite a stir because accessibility was seen as "desirable and not mandatory," said Weisman. Taxi commissioner David "Yassky is a huge problem; [he's] not committed to accessibility." Further, he said, the TLC operates "in a vacuum'' rather than coordinating with the MTA.

Fromberg, though said in an email that the commission does consider accessibility important. "The Taxi of Tomorrow request for proposal covers accessibility," he said, with language about “transfer from the curb to the car” and wheelchair accessibility.

"In every interview or public mention that I can think of, accessibility has always received equal billing to environmental aspects," Fromberg wrote. “I should also mention that the TLC has included the disability community and advocates in the process from the very beginning, which is consistent with our commitment to maximum accessibility.”

Currently, only 240 cabs out of the more than 13,000 in the city can accommodate wheelchairs. This, Fromberg pointed out, is “more than any other city in the nation" -- not surprisingly since New York also has more cabs of all types than any other U.S. city. Manhattan Assembly member Micah Kellner has proposed legislation that would require any new taxis in the city be accessible to people with disabilities.

Taxis equipped for wheelchairs, according to Fromberg, "are prohibitively expensive for a non-subsidized private industry -- $35,000 to $50,000,” as much as $15,000 to $20,000 more than a cab without the equipment.

As testament to the Bloomberg administration's commitment to accessible travel, Fromberg wrote, the taxi commission has “created a new class of medallions specifically earmarked for accessible vehicles, resulting in the city going from zero to the most accessible taxis in the nation. ... We tested numerous accessible vehicles for use as accessible taxicabs and wrote the first ever comprehensive set of technical specifications for accessible taxi vehicles to weed out unsafe vehicles that could not withstand the rigors of use as a NYC taxi."

The taxi commission recently admitted that a two-year $1million dispatch service for wheelchair users was a failure because it was underutilized. While not disputing that, Weisman has pointed out there was no marketing to people with disabilities and the program expected taxi drivers to travel, sometimes covering long distances, to pick up passengers. They did not receive any additional fee for the service.

In general, though, Weisman said, the taxi commission maintains that neither the vans nor the taxi fleet are subject to Americans with Disabilities Act rules because the city does not operate them -- third parties do. "The ADA specifically exempts TLC-regulated industries from accessibility requirements," Fromberg wrote. "There are no compliance issues.”

Spreading the Word

The MTA also has been under scrutiny for its public education programs, or lack thereof. In 2008, the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA, a transit advocacy group that holds a non-voting seat on the MTA board, released an analysis of accessibility and the MTA. It recommended the agency "develop an accessibility courtesy campaign " because "people with disabilities, especially wheelchair users, are frequently disrespected by the riding public."

The report cited the public's failure to allow disabled passengers priority access to elevators and AutoGate exits. It also said other riders did not give the disabled maneuvering space on subway cars and platforms and often would not give up priority seating on buses.

"Passengers need to be reminded that they share the subways, buses and trains with thousands of other riders and should be courteous and considerate to all travelers, including people with disabilities, " the citizens committee wrote. The subways pose a particular problem with many passengers not even realizing some are designated for handicapped riders.

How much of the problem is New York and how much is an aging transit system? To put the issue in perspective, one can look at Boston’s public transportation system, the MBTA -- which is significantly smaller but also dates back to the 19th century -- has a total of 167 elevators. On average, from September 2009 to September 2010, they worked 96.6 percent of the time, according to Laura Brelsford, system-wide accessibility coordinator.

There are 176 escalators and 223 elevators within the New York transit system, according to Parker. She did not cite the average repair time.

The Boston system faced its own lawsuit brought by local disabled advocates, which was settled in 2006. Now, though, 406 out of 558 or 73 percent of its light, heavy and commuter rails are wheelchair-accessible.

Boston shares with New York its old streets and sidewalks, infrastructure, fragile buildings and historic landmarks, begging the question why is that system so much more accessible? Commented Weisman, it's a question of “priority not technology.”

Jillian Jonas is a freelance journalist focusing on local and national politics, government and public policy. She is a former national political analyst for U.P.I.

Governor Signs Bill to Combat Bullying

p.s. 59
Photo, office of Gov. David Paterson
.Supporters celebrated Wednesday as Gov. David Paterson signed the Dignity for All Students Act.

It took 10 years for the New York State legislature to pass the Dignity for All Students Act to deal with bullying in the schools. While the bill has some shortcomings, supporters at the bill signing at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center in Greenwich Village Wednesday hailed the measure for having the potential to change the culture of schools and to spare thousands of children from humiliation, anger and despair.

The bill, some noted, also will be the first New York State law to protect people facing discrimination on the basis of "gender identity and expression."

To dramatize the need for the measure, State Sen. Thomas Duane, its Senate sponsor, told the story of an Ithaca mother whose daughter, the only black child in an otherwise white school, "was subjected to harsh bullying and harassment every day on the bus." He said that the school's solution "was not allowing her daughter to ride the bus. That will never happen again!"

What It Does and Doesn't Do

The act aims to do nothing short of affording "all students in public schools an environment free of discrimination and harassment." It calls such conduct "inconsistent with a school's educational mission." The new law aims to end bullying by requiring schools to adopt explicit policies to create harassment-free environments; inform students and parents about the new policies; develop guidelines for training all staff on how to develop a school culture that stops bullying; create guidelines on how to make curricula and counseling non-discriminatory; build awareness about issues of discrimination and bullying into courses on citizenship, civility, and character; train at least one staff member in human-relations counseling; and report incidents of bullying to the state education department. The act also will require the department to help local school districts implement the law by providing model policies, regulations and direct services.

The new law covers harassment or discrimination based on "a person's actual or perceived race, color, weight, national origin, ethnic group, religion, religious practice, disability, sexual orientation, gender or sex." It defines "gender" as "perceived sex and shall include a person's gender identity or expression."

Stamping out bullying may sound impractical and almost against human nature, but over the course of years of writing on this subject I have interviewed city teachers who work in schools that do such a good job of creating supportive environments for their students that the kids don't want to leave.

A group called Bully Police gives the New York law a grade of B-plus, falling short in terms of addressing cyberbullying and providing "victim counseling." Duane told those assembled at the signing ceremony that he is working on a cyberbullying amendment to the law that will be sensitive to "First Amendment issues."

The bill also does not go into effect for two more years. Udi Ofer, advocacy director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, one of the lead groups in the Dignity for All Students Coalition that pushed for the bill, told Gotham Gazette the two-year delay "is a good thing. This law is largely preventive and not punitive," he said. "School districts are going to receive model training programs for teachers, students, and administrators and model guidelines on how to prevent bullying in the first place --- not an easy task!"

In addition, that new state law only applies to public schools, one of the political compromises that was made to get it passed. The city anti-bullying law covers independent non-religious schools, but as explained below, the city Department of Education does not accept the validity of the city law.

Behind the Bill

The state measure emerged after years of debate and wrangling about what it would include and not include.

The inclusion of sexual orientation as a protected class was an initial sticking point for more conservative legislators in 2000. Many of the speakers at the bill signing -- City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, State Assemblymember Daniel O'Donnell and Duane -- are gay (and Irish for that matter). After the passage of the state’s Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act in late 2002, the objections moved on to involve "gender identity and expression" covering people of transgender experience, among the most abused people on the planet.

Pauline Park, director of the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy and transgendered herself, was one of the most tenacious advocates in the coalition that worked on the legislation. There was a time, she said, when Republicans offered to support the bill if "gender identity and expression" was taken out. At another juncture, some legislators tried to put the words "identity and expression" before all of the covered categories including gender, but Park balked because the protection would not have been as explicit. The coalition backed her up.

The signing ceremony is "a very important day," said Park. "It is the first time legislation has been enacted in New York State that includes gender identity and expression."

Transgendered people still are not covered under the hate crimes law or the state human rights law. (The city human rights law, enacted in 2002, does cover those who are transgendered.) The state Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act would correct that, but it failed to pass the Senate.

For the record, the vote in the Assembly on the Dignity for All Students Act was 138 to 4 and when the Senate finally voted on it they passed it 58 to 3. Makes you wonder what all the fuss was about.

Unpleasant Memories

Speakers at the ceremony emphasized the need for the measure, many harking back to their own experience.

Paterson, a longtime proponent of the bill from his time as a state senator, caused a bit of a ripple when he talked about how he coped with being bullied as the first blind student in his elementary school. "I hit the bully in the face with my lunch box," he said. "That is not the way to handle the problem."

Many tormented children do, on occasion, lash out. Some of the more notorious school shootings have been by bullied children. But most often, the victims of bullies become depressed, dropping out of school or attempting suicide -- sometimes successfully.

"Bullying was considered part of going to school in those days," said Paterson, noting that while the beatings pass into memory, "I never forgot the insults."

O'Donnell, the lead Assembly sponsor, noted that the category of "weight" was added recently in response to concerns about how overweight children are tortured in schools. "I was a fat kid," he said and remembers how badly he was treated at times because of that.

City Comptroller John Liu recalled his experience of being bullied as the only Asian child in his class in Queens. "You never forget the epithets and the insults. They stay with you for life," Liu said. "As a fifth grader, I went to my teacher to ask for help and was told, 'John, you are just going to have to learn to get along with the other kids.'"

Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers whose members will be charged with implementing the new law, expressed his support for it. "Bullying creates fear, frustration and anger, creating an environment where children do not learn," Mulgrew said. He talked about the need to "change the culture of schools" to stop bullying "and said the law "gives us the tools to make this happen."

State vs. City

The enactment of the city bill provided an opportunity for some to indirectly chide Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who was not at the ceremony, for his stand on the issue.

Quinn spoke of the city version of the law, the Dignity in All Schools Act of 2004 that the council passed. The mayor vetoed it but the council overrode him. Despite that, Quinn said, “"It was not implemented into law."

Bloomberg had argued the measure infringed on mayoral control of schools and dismissed the bill as “silly.” The council did not take him to court. But under pressure from advocates, mainly the Sikh Coalition whose turbaned children are often the targets of bullies, Schools Chancellor Joel Klein eventually issued a regulation against bullying and a Respect for All anti-bullying program. That policy is gradually being implemented in the schools but is still far short of what was required under the council bill.

The city Department of Education never took the issue seriously, Liu said, adding that the state bill "makes them take it seriously. It is going to be their job to track bullying and harassment."

In March, I reported on how statistics on bullying collected by the city were scant, despite some progress on new regulations against bullying and much more training of staff on how to combat it. Sonny Singh, community organizer with the Sikh Coalition, was thrilled about the new state requirements. "Now we can tell the Department of Education that they are not complying with state law if they don't clean up their act and make what's on paper a reality so that it makes a difference."

Moving Forward

Now, though, the work begins on making the measure work. Ofer of the Civil Liberties Union said the dignity coalition is "meeting with advocates and state education officials to create a Dignity for All Students Act implementation task force," a collaboration he called "historic."

Given that many of the advocates themselves come from the ranks of the bullied and harassed, this is their chance to make a difference and they are determined to do so.

"This is the end of the beginning, not the beginning of the end. I will make sure the task force works," Park said.

As Paterson closed the program to sign the bill, he could not resist one more dig at his former colleagues. "We are taking bullying out of the schools and putting it where it belongs -- in the legislature," he said.

Andy Humm, a former member of the City Commission on Human Rights, has been in charge of the civil rights topic page since its inception in 2001. He is co-host of the weekly "Gay USA" on Manhattan Neighborhood Network (34 on Time-Warner; 107 on RCN) on Thursdays at 11 PM.

Action Taken on Bullying in Schools and No-Fault Divorce

For more than a decade, the State Senate has resisted passing legislation to combat bullying in schools -- partly because it targeted bullying based on sexual orientation and gender identity and expression.

You have to wonder what the real controversy was because when the bill was voted on by the Senate on June 22, it passed 58 to 3. The “Dignity for All Students Act,” however, does not go into effect until July 1, 2012.

New York City passed its own version of the law back in 2003, but Mayor Bloomberg refused to enforce it, citing his sole control over the schools. In recent years, under pressure from a variety of groups concerned about bullying, including the Sikh Coalition, the Department of Education issued a Chancellor’s Regulation on bullying. It then stepped up a program called Respect for All, which is supposed to reach into every school and give all students access to someone who will take their bullying complaints seriously.

As we reported in Gotham Gazette in March, the city has scant data on the extent of bullying in schools. The new state law requires reporting instances of bias harassment to the State Department of Education as well as mandated trainings for staff, among other provisions. It lacks a cyber bullying provision, according to Bully Police USA. It has been hailed as a huge step forward by most advocates.

The U.S. Department of Education just held its first national summit on school bullying on August 11 and 12 in Washington. The National Center for Education found that in the 2007-08 school year, almost a third of students aged 12 through 18 reported being bullied -- mostly teasing and being subject to rumors, which sometimes led to harassment and violence, including suicide.

No-Fault and Gay Divorce

Back in 2006, I wrote about why New York was the last state to adopt a no-fault divorce law. The odd couple of the conservative Roman Catholic Church, who opposes divorce period and doesn't want to see it get easier, and the feminist National Organization for Women resisted it. NOW was concerned about the plight of the poorer spouse (most often a woman) who could be outmaneuvered by a rich spouse in court. The current law had the drawback of forcing many partners to lie about engaging in adultery in order to legally justify the divorce.

Gov. David Paterson just signed a no-fault divorce law on August 15. He also signed another bill that creates “a presumption that a less monied spouse in a divorce case is entitled to payment of attorneys' fees,” according to his press release.

While no-fault is a big change for New York, it is also the first time state law explicitly recognizes married same-sex couples.

Gay couples cannot get a marriage license in New York. But if they legally marry elsewhere, they are recognized as married here for legal purposes (except in the case of state taxes thanks to a narrow interpretation of the tax law by the state Department of Taxation and Finance).

But even though the Senate voted against a bill opening marriage to same-sex couples, it passed the Assembly. Now the no-fault divorce bill includes explicit reference to same-sex married couples: “It is the intent of this legislation to grant full recognition and respect to valid marriages of same-sex couples to obtain relief under New York State laws and in New York's courts.”

So, the Senate won’t let gay couples marry here but they have no problem with them divorcing here.

The bigger news on the same-sex marriage front was federal Judge Vaughn Walker’s overturning of California’s Proposition 8 that banned recognition of same-sex marriages in the state constitution (except for those performed before the ban went into effect in November 2008). On appeal the U.S. Supreme Court could eventually find a federal right to marriage for same-sex couples the way it found one for interracial couples in 1967.

The Ninth Circuit stayed Judge Walker’s decision on August 13, setting oral arguments for the appeal on December 6.

The California case overshadowed a July 9 decision by US District Judge Joseph Tauro that found the federal Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional insofar as it bars legally married same-sex couples in Massachusetts from any federal recognition of benefits like Social Security. While same-sex couples can marry in five states (Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont) and the District of Columbia, none are entitled to federal rights including those recognized as married in New York. It remains to be seen whether the Obama Justice Department will appeal this decision to the First District.

Andy Humm, a former member of the City Commission on Human Rights, has been in charge of the civil rights topic page since its inception in 2001. He is co-host of the weekly "Gay USA" on Manhattan Neighborhood Network (34 on Time-Warner; 107 on RCN) on Thursdays at 11 PM.

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