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As Court Hears Arguments, Gay Couples Exchange Vows and Keep Watch

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Erika Karp and SarI Kessler, together 14 years, arrived at the clerk's office at 4 a.m. They were the first in line. (Alec Hamilton/WNYC)

As the Supreme Court heard arguments on gay marriage Tuesday, same-sex couples lined up at the city's marriage bureau in Lower Manhattan to exchange vows.

Erika Karp and Sari Kessler know what that's like. They married under a rainbow chuppah outside the city clerk's office in lower Manhattan in 2011

The couple, who first wed in 1999 without any government sanction, were among the first same-sex couples to officially pick up their marriage license and get hitched the day gay marriage became legal in New York. Now, as the Supreme Court hears arguments on the Defense of Marriage Act, Sari Kessler spoke with WNYC about what it has meant to have her marriage legally recognized.

Kessler says having their marriage recognized by the state has meant a lot. "Emotionally and psychologically, when the government says its legal, what they're doing is they're educating people, and so more and more people are on board and they understand, creating sort of a virtuous cycle because it's made me more comfortable using the term 'wife.'"

But having a state-recognized marriage hasn't changed much for the couple, financially speaking. Most of the financial benefits of marriage happen at the federal level. Kessler says their tax situation is especially complicated now.

"We're still filing separately as individuals on the federal level," she said, "but it's become more complicated and more expensive because now we're filing on the state level as married but separate. Actually we've had to pay our accountant more money.

She says federal recognition would affect their financial life "in every way."

"We've had to jump through a lot of hoops to put into place things that .. heterosexual couples are able to take for granted," she said, "like in terms of our second parent adoption, there's been all kinds of legal fees."

Despite those hoops, Kessler says she and Karp didn't even consider waiting.

"As soon as we found out we could it legally on the state level," Kessler said. "We were in."

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Going to the Courthouse and We're Going to Get Married

(Photo: Ramin Paksima, 40, and Gary Durnan, 50, got married in Lower Manhattan on Tuesday. Both are designers who live in Manhattan./Daisy Rosario for WNYC)

Juan Carlos Rojas and Lance Kayser traveled from California to New York City to get married on Tuesday. Rojas said he already feels married to his partner of eight years but because he isn't a citizen, he yearned for the couple to have “some recognition.”

“The legality for us is a big deal because we want to be able to have our rights and for me to sponsor him (for a green card) and to feel like we’re equal under the law as everyone else. So it’s a big deal on both levels,” Kayser said.

Meanwhile, New Yorkers Ramin Paksima and Gary Durnan also went to tie the knot. The couple has been together for 10 years.

“It’s not a religious thing, it’s a legal thing. It’s like benefits afforded to citizens,” said Paksima.

Patrick Kellogg and Thor Stockman were acting as witnesses for another same-sex couple. They’re planning their own June wedding in New York, but will marry in California if the Court overturns Prop 8.

“It makes it a lot easier for all sorts of rights and privileges that everybody else just takes for granted," Stockman said. "They don’t even realize that this is being shut out to a significant portion of United States citizens. And it’s very frustrating."

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Destination Same-Sex Wedding? Think New York City, Experts Say

(Photo: A window display of a same-sex couple. Kate Hinds/WNYC)

New York City isn’t your typical site for destination weddings – but experts say same-sex marriage may have changed that.

More than 8,200 same sex couples requested marriage licenses in New York City in the first year it was legalized. And more than half of those couples didn't reside in the city, according to city data.

LGBT wedding planner Bernadette Coveney Smith said legalizing same-sex marriage has “changed the ball game here in New York City” – and said that her Boston-based business has doubled since she opened a New York outpost in 2011.

“As those couples come in from other states, and they get legally married and then they go home, it has this profound ripple effect,” she said, noting her clients have come from the UK, Australia and states around the country.

Smith said her clients are paying close attention to this week’s Supreme Court proceedings. One of them is postponing her wedding until the court rules in June because her partner is from the U.K. and may be forced to leave.

Currently, gay spouses cannot sponsor their partners for green cards.

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In NJ, Clergy Watch Same-Sex Marriage Debate

Same-sex marriage was a hot topic in New Jersey more than a year ago when legislators debated legalizing it in their state before it was vetoed by Governor Chris Christie. Now, churches are paying close attention to the issue as it plays out on the national stage.

Rev. Ann Ralosky, senior minister at the First Congregational Church in Montclair, N.J., testified in favor of same-sex marriage last year in Trenton and said she plans to listen to recordings of the Supreme Court arguments.

“We definitely do need to call upon the spirit to strengthen all those involved and to make sure all decisions are made with wisdom and compassion,” Ralosky said, “but I'm fascinated to hear what the judges say what questions they'll ask.”

Rev. Ralph Snook, with the Chestnut Assembly of God in Vineland, campaigned against same-sex marriage last year.

“The people speak very loud and clear about the issues, but the politicians who say they're supposed to be representing us in this representative form of government are not listening to the wishes of the people,” Snook said.

Snook says New Jersey lawmakers should allow the matter to be decided through a referendum.

- Tracie Hunte contributed reporting

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DOMA Decision Could Impact Non-Citizens

(Photo: Neal Stone and Steven Eng. Courtesy of Karen Sieber Photography)

Thousands of people in same-sex relationships say a repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act wouldn’t just mean an easier life – it would mean living securely in the same country.

Under current federal law, Americans in same-sex relationships can’t sponsor their partners or spouses for green cards in the way that straight married couples can.

That’s caused a bit of a headache for U.S. citizen Jonathan Benbow, who says he’d at least like the option of leaving France and returning home to New York with his French partner, Mickaël, of eight years.

“I don’t understand why the U.S. government won’t allow me the same right that heterosexual people have,” Benbow said. “I think that the community, the country, would have everything to gain in allowing people like us to live there.”

For Neal Stone and his partner, a green card would mean stability. Stone, a Canadian, lives with his American husband, Steven Eng, in Jackson Heights on an employment-based visa.

“It’s about protecting the lives that we’ve built together and not having to pack up and leave the country if something should happen to my job,” Stone said.  

A recent study by the Williams Institute says an estimated 32,000 same-sex couples consist of one U.S. citizen and one non-citizen.

- Reema Khrais contributed reporting

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