On Eve Of Valentine’s Day, Tragic NY Case Again Shows ‘Civil Union Does Not Work’

2/13/2010

On Eve Of  Valentine's Day,  Tragic NY Case Again Shows  ‘Civil Union Does Not Work’
 
Even in New York State, Which Honors Out-of-State Marriages, Same-Sex Legal Spouse in Civil Union Faces Denial of Workers' Comp
 
For Immediate Release:
February 13, 2010, New York, NY

PRESS CONTACT:
Evan Wolfson
Executive Director, Freedom to Marry
212-851-8418; Mobile: 646-263-5552
Email: evan@freedomtomarry.org 
 
New York, New York, February 13, 2010—Amid mounting evidence from states such as New Jersey and Vermont that the legal mechanism of “civil union” fails to protect families and falls far short of the security and clarity that come with marriage itself, a legal case arising from a New York couple’s tragedy is hitting a sad milestone this Valentine’s Day.
 
“John and Conrad’s tragic case is yet more evidence that relegating gay people to separate legal mechanisms outside of marriage, such as civil union, does not work to protect them and their loved ones – even in states such as New York, which honors out-of-state marriages for gay and non-gay couples alike,” said Evan Wolfson, Executive Director of Freedom to Marry and author of Why Marriage Matters: America, Equality, and Gay People’s Right to Marry.  “Official Commissions in Vermont and New Jersey, two of the first to experiment with civil union, have reported that civil union falls far short of marriage itself, and even the anti-gay state senators in last month’s marriage debate in New Jersey conceded that that state’s civil union wasn’t working.  Sadly, tragedies such as John and Conrad’s are the living proof of how separate, unequal, inadequate, and unfair civil union really is. 
 
“The just and fair answer for families to end the exclusion of committed couples from the legal system of protection and respect that carries across state lines and legal categories.  In America, that’s marriage,” Wolfson added.
 
Background
 
As described in Evan Wolfson’s book, Why Marriage Matters: America, Equality, and Gay People’s Right to Marry, John Langan was in a 15-year relationship with Neal Conrad Spicehandler. In August 2000, the couple formalized their life-committed bond through a Vermont civil union, a spousal relationship for same-sex couples that was purportedly the legal equivalent of a marriage – a legal relationship that the state of Vermont has now scrapped in favor of one system for all couples, marriage itself.

On February 12, 2002, after being hit by a car while on the job, Spicehandler was rushed to St. Vincent's Hospital. On Valentine's Day, February 14, 2002, Mr. Langan kissed Mr. Spicehandler goodnight for the last time. Early the next morning, St. Vincent's Hospital called Mr. Langan to tell him that Mr. Spicehandler had died during the night.

New York's Workers' Compensation Law entitles a "surviving legal spouse" to spousal death benefits when the worker dies from injuries on the job. Mr. Langan is Mr. Spicehandler's legal spouse under the couple's Vermont civil union, and therefore under the plain language of New York law should be entitled to Workers' Compensation spousal death benefits.

Yet the New York State Workers' Compensation Board and the New York Appellate Division, over a dissenting opinion, held that Mr. Langan is not entitled to benefits because he and Mr. Spicehandlder were in a civil union and not a marriage. The New York Workers' Compensation law at issue makes no reference to "marriage" as a prerequisite to benefits--only "legal spouses," which Mr. Langan and Mr. Spicehandler indisputably were.  During Mr. Spicehandler's lifetime, marriage was not available to same-sex couples anywhere in this country. Mr. Langan and Mr. Spicehandler thus entered into the most formal legal spousal relationship available to same-sex couples while Mr. Spicehandler was alive.

As Valentine's Day and the eight-year anniversary of Mr. Spicehandler's death approaches, Mr. Langan still has not received a penny in compensation. New York State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, who has the obligation to enforce New York law – and who publicly supports gay people’s freedom to marry – maintains that he has no authority to extend the Workers' Compensation spousal death benefits to the legal surviving spouse of this relationship solely because it was a civil union and not a marriage, which was not available to the parties during Mr. Spicehandler's lifetime.

Mr. Langan maintains a right to seek an appeal from the New York State Court of Appeals, the State's highest court.

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Freedom to Marry is the gay and non-gay partnership working to win marriage equality nationwide. Launched in 2003, Freedom to Marry is headed by Evan Wolfson, nationally recognized as a central "architect of the marriage equality movement." Freedom to Marry guides and focuses this social justice movement on a nationwide level, serving as a strategy and support center for national, state, and local partners, a catalyst that drives and shapes the national debate on marriage equality, and an alliance-builder fostering support from non-gay allies.