Letter From The President Of The New York County Lawyers' Association

2005-03-01 00:00

To The Readers Of The Metropolitan Corporate Counsel:

President George W. Bush's second inaugural address, with its frequent references to freedom, reminds us of the enduring affinity political leaders have for that word. America's role as a beacon of freedom, however, does not emanate from the politician's repetitive intonation of the word. Rather, we know freedom is flourishing when every American can lay claim to its rewards.

As women and ethnic and racial minorities continue their march to achieve that reality, another group still lags behind. Efforts to secure the dream of full equality and end discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or identity for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities are now on the frontier in that struggle. New York lawyers should note with pride that our profession is once again on the front line. But while we have fostered significant success, great challenges lie ahead.

NYCLA recently conducted a survey of how New York's top 25 law firms address issues of concern to the LGBT community. The Report provides concrete evidence that New York's large firms are leading society to a place of tolerance, inclusiveness and equal opportunity. Remarkably, 24 of the firms participated in the survey and their responses demonstrate substantial progress on an array of critical issues, ranging from recruitment policies and health benefits (for same-sex partners), to pro bono representation of LGBT clients and financial support for LGBT projects.

A test of the will to follow that lead lies dead ahead.

While the large firms have made great progress, there is still a long way to go to ensure that self-identified LGBT attorneys are retained, promoted and elevated to partnership and other leadership positions within the firms.

But the greatest challenge is to ensure that society eradicates the vestigial barrier standing between the LGBT community and full freedom: the ban on same-sex marriage. In late 2003 NYCLA endorsed the rights of same-sex couples, opposing any attempt to bar lesbian and gay couples from civil marriage. On February 4, 2005, a New York State Supreme Court Justice ruled that the ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional under the New York State Constitution and enjoined the New York City Clerk from denying a marriage license to any couple, solely on the ground that the two persons are of the same sex. Ultimately, the issue will be decided by the New York State Court of Appeals and eventually may be the subject of legislative reform or constitutional amendment. Significantly, before any of these events transpire, the 70,000-member New York State Bar Association will decide at its House of Delegates meeting in April whether to support the right of same-sex couples to enter into marriage or to endorse some lesser palliative or to take no action at all. The rest of society will be watching and waiting to see whether New York's organized bar will lead, follow or abdicate.

NYCLA's support of full marriage rights for same-sex couples derives not only from our historic commitment to fight for equal rights for all, but from the inherent responsibility of lawyers to champion the cause of freedom and ensure universal access to fundamental rights. In a secular, pluralistic society, we cannot let sectarian views trump the civil rights of any person. Lawyers should not stand silent when the notions of "tradition" and "natural law" are invoked, as they were to justify slavery and segregation, oppose women's suffrage, anti-miscegenation laws and the proscription upon consensual sexual relations between same-sex individuals. For these reasons NYCLA will file an amicus curiae brief in support of full civil marriage rights for same-sex couples when the matter comes before the Court of Appeals. NYCLA also calls upon the New York State Bar Association to embrace equal marriage rights for same-sex couples and reject proposals that would have the legal community support half-way measures, permanently consigning a class of citizens to second-class status, or worse, stand mute on a matter of fundamental freedom.

Invoking the word "freedom" as our president has done does not make it a reality; it must be constructed out of the bricks and mortar of law and constitutional principle. That task is the special responsibility of American lawyers. As the LGBT community struggles to achieve the full measure of American freedom, lawyers must lead the way.


Norman Reimer