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A Question of Faith: Religious Community Reacts to Passage of Marriage Equality Law

Originally Published in the Saratogian: July 2, 2011. Click here to read online.

By SUZANNA K. LOURIE

WINNER OF HONORABLE MENTION, “Best Feature Series” – 2011 LOCAL NY MEDIA ASSOCIATION AWARDS

SARATOGA SPRINGS — Local religious entities expressed mixed reactions to the recent approval of the Marriage Equality Act, which was signed into law June 25 and will take effect in late July, legalizing same-sex marriage in New York. Some say they will perform ceremonies for gay couples, while others will not. Some have yet to decide.

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Protestors rally for the cause at the Albany Capital

Throughout the debate on the bill, conservatives expressed concern about whether religious groups would be protected against discrimination charges under the new law.

“I haven’t read the law yet, but it’s my understanding that there are safeguards for religious institutions,” said the Rev. Dominic S. Ingemie of the Roman Catholic Church of St. Peter on Broadway in Saratoga Springs.

Ingemie is right. The new law does include safeguards protecting churches from being accused of discrimination if they choose not to perform same-sex marriages.

“We will not be performing same-sex marriages,” Ingemie said. “That’s the universal position of the Roman Catholic Church because it’s our understanding, as we see in scripture and in tradition, that marriage is between a man and a woman.”

On a personal level, Ingemie said he feels the rights of a couple ought to be honored and he does not believe that permitting same-sex marriages will affect the institution of marriage as a whole.

Other churches in the area also have decided not to perform same-sex ceremonies, although each congregation’s rationale differs.

“We will not perform same-sex marriage services,” said Senior Pastor Dale Jensen of Saratoga Abundant Life Church in Saratoga Springs, a non-denominational Christian church. “When we make laws like this, it marginalizes marriage to the point where eventually it won’t mean anything in our culture — it puts the whole institution at stake.”

The Rev. Steve Harness of Wilton Baptist Church in Wilton, holds a similar opinion, and said his congregation will not officiate same-sex marriages.

“We are an independent Baptist church so I can’t speak for the national Baptist tradition, but we follow closely what the Bible teaches, and I believe most other independent Baptist churches would feel the same,” Harness said.

Not every local church has reached a decision about whether it will perform same-sex services.

“The law is so new, it just got passed this week and it’s not something this congregation has really given any thought to whatsoever,” said Rabbi Kenneth Blatt of the conservative Jewish Congregation Shaara T’fille in Saratoga Springs. “We have a pretty liberal congregation here, but I have no idea how they feel about this, and I’m not even 100 percent sure how I feel about it.”

Blatt’s mixed feelings are echoed in the three subdivisions of Judaism: the more liberal reconstructionists, the moderate reformists and the conservative strand. Each of the three schools is at a different stage of applying gay rights in their own tradition.

“The reconstructionists fully endorse same-sex civil unions, but they encourage civil ceremonies over ceremonies performed by a clergyman,” Blatt said.

In 2000, Blatt said the reform movement voted to support colleagues in their tradition who chose to perform same-sex marriages. Within the conservative movement, which Blatt is a part of, feelings toward gay marriage are mixed.

“The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly met in 2006 to discuss the issue, but there was no unanimity so it was left up to the individual synagogue,” Blatt said. “Most people are perfectly comfortable with civil ceremonies, but because of the way the Bible talks about marriage it’s an issue we really need some guidance from the church leadership about.”

Although the scripture clearly states marriage is between a man and a woman, Blatt said since it was written more than 2,000 years ago, most people don’t live by a strict interpretation of the Bible.

“That’s why we have the Talmud, to try to explain and interpret the Bible,” Blatt explained. “Religion is not written in stone. Times change. This is so new, and we’re still grappling with a lot of questions.”

“It’s a personal matter, but I think people should be allowed to marry,” Blatt said. “I’m glad the state passed the law.”

Local Methodist and Presbyterian church leaders agree, and go one step further by choosing to conduct same-sex marriages in the future.

The Presbyterian-New England Congregational Church in Saratoga Springs is a combination of two churches: the United Church of Christ and the Presbyterian Church of the United States.

“The national UCC denomination is fine with it,” UCC-ordained Rev. Eleanor Stanton of the Presbyterian-New England Congregational Church said about the congregation’s position on gay marriage. “I’m hoping to officiate some same-sex marriages in the future.”

The church’s other Presbyterian-ordained pastor, the Rev. Jay Eckman, has been a longtime advocate of same-sex marriage and equal rights, both in and out of the church.

“When Jesus asked what the greatest commandment was, he said, ‘to love God and love one another,’ ” Eckman said. “Prejudice against gays is not loving each other.”

In addition to the Presbyterian-New England Congregational Church, the Saratoga Springs United Methodist Church on Fifth Avenue also plans to conduct same-sex marriages.

“I am delighted with the vote, and I did announce to my congregation on Sunday that I would be open to performing same-sex marriages,” the Rev. Brolin C. Parker said.

Either way, the religious protections built into the new bill legalizing gay marriage work to protect each church’s decision. And for at least one same-sex couple planning to marry, that’s OK.

“We were never banging on the door of a Catholic church trying to force them to marry us,” said Ralph Hays of Wilton, who has plans to marry his partner, Kevin Martin, this fall.

“The law protects churches, and our getting married doesn’t hurt anybody under the Marriage Equality Act.”

A Question of Equality: The Human Lives & Faces Behind Same-Sex Marriage

Originally Published in the Saratogian: Saturday, July 2, 2011. Click here to read online.

*WINNER: Local Media Association 2011 Best Feature Series: Honorable Mention Story

By SUZANNA K. LOURIE

SARATOGA SPRINGS — After 17 years together, Kevin Martin and Ralph Hays can finally plan their wedding.

On June 24, following a series of closed-door debates in Albany, the Marriage Equality Act legalizing same-sex marriage in New York passed the Republican-led Senate in a 33-29 vote. Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a long-time advocate of gay rights in New York, signed the bill, which will go into effect in late July.

“We’ve always had vague little notions about what our wedding would be like, but we had to push it to the back of our minds because we couldn’t get our hopes up and be devastated again,” Hays said of the couple’s wedding plans.

In the week following the approval of the bill, Hays and Martin set a tentative wedding date for this coming fall at one of their favorite Lake George getaway destinations.

With things like music, invitations and seating charts on their minds, Hays and Martin aren’t concerned about having to wait 30 days to obtain their marriage license from the state.

“We haven’t really thought about that — we have, however, ordered our daughter’s dress and started planning a trip to Disney World as a family to celebrate next summer — so, first things first,” Hays said.

Hays and Martin left their families and friends in Ohio 14 years ago to move to Wilton, where they could legally adopt children and start a family. They are the parents of a 14-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter, both adopted from Vietnam.

“It’s amazing that we are able to even have the discussion about little things like what music to pick for the reception,” Hays said. “It’s a joy.”

The increased number of couples planning weddings following passage of the bill is also music to the ears of local venues, florists and other wedding oriented businesses.

“I definitely expect to see a spike in couples getting married because now we have this whole new group of people who have the opportunity,” said Shannon Whitney, owner of Wedding Planning Plus, a wedding planning business serving the Capital DistrictWhitney said there are plenty of people looking to capitalize on this new clientele and that she has received phone calls and emails from people looking to compile wedding directories specifically for same-sex couples.

“It’s just another way to make money,” Whitney said. “Gay couples don’t need a separate directory — to me, a wedding is still a wedding, whether it’s between a man and a woman, two men or two women. My philosophy won’t change since I try to cater to the needs of each individual couple.”Although Whitney hasn’t noticed a strong business boom just yet, she said that other local venues have already seen a flood of requests coming from gay couples planning their weddings.Erin Dewey, the wedding coordinator at the Inn at Erlowest in Lake George, also expects a surge in the state’s wedding industry.

“We have received three requests in just four days since the bill passed and we expect to get a lot more in the following months,” Dewey said.

Closer to home, popular wedding destination Longfellows hotel and restaurant in Saratoga Springs is also predicting an increase in wedding receptions.

“I know we have a few same-sex marriages on the books,” said Jamie Lanning who works in Longfellows’ corporate sales division. “I think we’re all anticipating a bit of an influx, and the requests are coming in a little at a time. Most of these people have been in long-term relationships so it’s great to see — we’ve done commitment ceremonies prior to this, but we’re very friendly to same-sex marriages.”

For Hays and Martin, planning all the bells and whistles of a wedding day is exciting, but it’s what happens after the ceremony that matters most.

“The legal protections for our family that come with marriage from the state are huge,” Hays said.

Attorney Julie Frances of Saratoga Springs shed light on a few of the more than 1,000 legal protections that same-sex couples will gain through marriage.

“One of the big things is the tax benefits that come with marriage. Married couples can file joint tax returns and then they pay less in state taxes,” Frances said.

The rights that extend to same-sex couples who choose to marry after the bill goes into effect are only recognized on the state level. Until the federal government reviews and amends its policies about same-sex marriage, the issue is a state one, Frances said.

“Prior to the enactment of the bill, there were several contractual agreements that same-sex couples could enter into for some rights, including things like a health care proxy,” Frances said. “But not all of the same rights available to heterosexual married couples could be solved with contracts, so allowing gay couples to marry removes a lot of the obstacles they had to face in the past.”

For example, prior to the legalization of gay marriage, same-sex couples could sign a health care proxy appointing a partner to be the other’s agent. In the case that one partner is incapacitated due to a severe accident or illness, their agent becomes the person who would be in charge of making the other’s medical decisions in accordance with their living will.

“Before this law, the tricky part for a gay couple would be if they never got around to signing a proxy or writing a living will,” Frances said. “If a member of that couple was in an unexpected accident without those documents, the other partner would not have the right to be the decision maker, whereas for a married couple, the spouse automatically gets that responsibility.”

In addition to the health care benefits of marriage, Hays said the estate tax benefit holds tremendous significance for his family.

“For married couples, if a husband dies, the wife automatically gets the house and doesn’t have to pay tax on it,” Hays explained. “That was not afforded to us before. It’s mundane, but the fact we don’t have to live under that fear — people don’t realize how huge that is.”

Beyond the legal protections that coincide with a marriage certificate, and beyond the bells and whistles of planning a wedding ceremony, the new Marriage Equality Act holds even greater meaning for Martin and Hays.

“I played a concert last night in Ballston Spa, and when we played ‘God Bless America’ I felt so happy to be playing it because I felt like a true American,” Hays said. “I can’t imagine playing that if the bill didn’t go through. There’s still a lot to go through on the national level, but right now it’s night and day. We feel absolute elation.”

Off to a Good Start: Attendance Up, Handle Up, Temperatures Way Up on Opening Day at Saratoga Race Course

Originally Published in the Saratogian Newspaper, Print Edition. Friday, July 22, 2011. Click Here to Read Online.

By SUZANNA K. LOURIE
slourie@saratogian.com

Opening Day

Horses make their way around the main track at Saratoga Race Course Friday for morning workouts.
Photo Erica Miller

 

SARATOGA SPRINGS — It was the hottest July 22 in more than 10 years for Saratoga Springs, but blistering temperatures couldn’t stop the 25,155 fans who showed up, water bottles in hand, ready to celebrate the kickoff of Saratoga Race Course’s 143rd annual racing season.

The high temperatures were a stark contrast to last year’s opening day when a crowd of 23,178 came out despite torrential downpours; this year’s opening day attendance represented an 8.5 percent increase over last year.

For the next six weeks, the racing industry will be focused on Saratoga, America’s most historic track, where plenty of new features abound,from the entrance of Dunkin’ Donuts and the exit of Carvel to the touted low price of beer at $3 for a 12 oz. domestic draft. Fans were up early in the Clubhouse for the 7 a.m. breakfast at the track, where they dined on scrambled eggs, pastries and sipped a morning mimosa during the horses’ early workouts.

Close friends Marie Vredenvurg of Mechanicville, Teresa Califano and Ann Palin, both from Clifton Park, come to breakfast at the track on opening day every year.

“We like to see the horses work out,” Califano said. “We also just love Saratoga and it’s not just during race season,” Palin added. “I love Saratoga all year long — I enjoy coming up here, just walking the main street through the little shops — you find things you don’t find any other place. Saratoga is just unique and we’re fortunate to be a part of it.”

Opening Day2

Sirsy duo Melanie Krahmer and Rich Libutti perform on Division Street during the first night of this weekend’s Hats Off to Saratoga Festival.
Photo Ed Burke

Other dedicated fans lined up even earlier than 7 a.m. outside of the main gate to ensure they would get a shady picnic table in the backyard.

“We line up every year at 6:30 in the morning to get this same spot,” said longtime racing fan Randy Johnson, who also teaches biology at Saratoga Springs High School.

Johnson, a Saratoga Springs resident, reunites with friends he only sees during racing season each year at the very same picnic table.

 

“Randy runs every morning with his packed backpack, table clothes and chairs to get this spot,” said Johnson’s friend Cynthia Hutchinson of Montreal. “He calls it running with the bulls.”

Johnson is no backyard rookie either, for more than a decade he’s come back to the same spot to meet friend Bob Guay, of Montreal.

“We met right here 15 years ago and now this guy is my best friend — we go to his house and he comes down here,” Johnson said of Guay.

For Johnson and his crew, the best prescription for beating the heat was kicking back with a cold beer, plenty of water and, of course, laughing with old friends.

“We sit in the same area every year and you really start to know people,” said Guay’s wife Joy Brock. “People say, ‘Hey, how are you?’ It’s really wonderful.”

A “who’s who” list of Capital Region business leaders gathered at the Carousel Restaurant, where socialite Marylou Whitney and her husband, John Hendrickson, hosted their annual Opening Day luncheon.

Outside in the picnic areas, track goers were in high spirits despite temperatures soaring into the mid-90s.

“It’s Christmas in July!” yelled one happy fan while setting up his tent.

Strolling past the bars, there was a buzz about the new low prices of beer.

“Dude, it’s only $3!” called out another anonymous crowd member from one bar.

 

For some, the cure for the sizzling heat was knocking back a cold one and for others, it was savoring a bowl of ice-cold Ben and Jerry’s. Moshik Teichholtz of Israel came to Saratoga for the first time with son Guy Teichholtz and brother Udi Vax. Having only been in Saratoga for three-hours, the trio was already enjoying the atmosphere of the track.

Opening Day 3

“I like the atmosphere, it’s not like Israel — except it’s hot, the weather is just like Israel,” said Teichholtz.

Closer to the track, fans outside the paddock lined up to watch the horses warm up before the second race of the day.

“The horses are why we come here; they’re the stars,” one observer said.

Racing fans did a lot of wagering Friday: on-track handle was $3,551,745, up 13.4 percent from 2010; total handle including wagers made on-track and from nationwide simulcast outlets was $15,871,449, up 18.9 percent.

Other fans were content to post up with elaborate picnic set ups in front of the outdoor TV screens to watch the races and do their betting from the comfort of their claimed space.

“We only go to the rail if it’s not blistering hot,” Hutchinson said. “We mostly spend the day right here in the shade and it’s great.”

Despite the high humidity, well-coiffed women in the Clubhouse managed to stay glamorous with elaborate hats and headpieces, high heels and frequent make-up touch-ups.

“I love the excitement and the challenge of picking the right horse… which I often do by name,” laughed 10-year track attendee Wendy Burke, of Boston.

It’s not just racing fans who are feeling good about the 2011 Saratoga meet, the New York Racing Association heads into the 2011 meet in much better financial condition than a year ago, when it was faced with the possibility of a racing shutdown before getting the first installment of a $25 million loan. The loan, first provided by the state, has since been taken over by Genting New York LLC, the firm chosen to run Aqueduct Race Track’s new casino that’s scheduled to open this fall.

 

Adding to the sense of optimism, Saratoga Race Course is expected to undergo $100 million worth of capital improvements in the next few years as new gaming revenue becomes available.

Overall, searing temperatures couldn’t slight the opening day excitement felt around the track about the official kick off of what is sure to be another exciting 40-day meet.

“I think Saratoga is the best track in the country because of the ambiance,” said Mary Ann Monaco of Albany. “At Belmont, it’s just the racetrack — here, it’s the picnic areas, the trees and just look at the track! It just inspires you to come here. Saratoga is the place to be, just like they say.”