NY votes lining up for legalizing gay marriage
Published: Jun 24, 2011 7:14 PM
ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) - A veteran New York Republican senator who had been undecided said Friday night he will vote for gay marriage, the potential deciding vote in a divisive debate watched as a bellwether for the national gay rights movement.
Sen. Stephen Saland told The Associated Press he has long been undecided. He voted against a similar bill in 2009, helping kill the measure and dealing a blow to the national gay rights movement.
Before he announced his intention, 31 senators were in favor, one short of a majority. If they all still vote that way, New York will become the sixth state, and by far the largest, where gay marriage is legal once Gov. Andrew Cuomo signs it into law.
The Democrat-led Assembly already passed the bill.
"While I understand that my vote will disappoint many, I also know my vote is a vote of conscience," Saland said in a statement to the AP. "I am doing the right thing in voting to support marriage equality."
Republicans in the New York Senate agreed Friday to allow a full vote on legalizing gay marriage, setting the stage for a possible breakthrough victory for the gay-rights movement in the state where it got its start. The chamber approved protections for religious groups opposed to gay marriage not long after the Assembly also gave them the nod.
New York would become the sixth state where gay couples can wed, and the biggest by far.
Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos said the bill will come to the floor and be brought up for an "up or down vote." It will be a "vote of conscience for every member of this Senate," Skelos said.
Sen. Thomas Duane, the openly gay Manhattan Democrat who sponsored the bill, wouldn't speculate on its chances.
"I'm hopeful - with the governor and bipartisan support," Duane said.
Ruben Diaz Sr., the leader of opposition to the bill and the lone Democrat expected to vote no, had inklings before the vote that it would pass.
"They wouldn't bring it if it wouldn't pass," Diaz said.
"We'll pass it," predicted Senate Democratic leader John Sampson of Brooklyn, whose conference is committing 29 votes to the 32 needed to approve gay marriage.
The heavily Democratic Assembly on Friday evening passed amendments protecting religious groups that oppose gay marriage from discrimination lawsuits, leaving only the Senate vote to finalize the measure. Amid cheers, the chamber passed the religious exemptions by a vote of 82-47. The Assembly passed the main gay marriage bill a week ago.
Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who campaigned on the issue last year, has promised to sign it. Gay weddings could begin 30 days after that.
Gay marriage activists were jubilant and applauded Skelos, who is opposed to gay marriage, for keeping his promise to let the conference decide whether to send the bill to the floor.
Though New York is a relative latecomer in allowing gay marriage, it is considered an important prize for advocates, given the state's size and New York City's international stature and its role as the birthplace of the gay-rights movement, which is said to have started with the Stonewall riots in Greenwich Village in 1969.
At a fundraiser in New York City Thursday night, President Barack Obama praised New York lawmakers for taking up the issue but cautioned the gay community that getting the right to marry would take time. Obama has said his position is evolving but he still supports civil unions.
"I believe that gay couples deserve the same legal rights as every other couple in this country," the president said at the fundraiser, his first geared specifically to the gay community. Obama said he was confident that there will be a day "when every single American, gay or straight or lesbian or bisexual or transgender, is free to live and love as they see fit."
The effects of a New York law could be felt well beyond the state: Unlike Massachusetts, which pioneered gay marriage in 2004, New York has no residency requirement for obtaining a marriage license, meaning the state could become a magnet for gay couples across the country who want to have a wedding in Central Park, the Hamptons, the romantic Hudson Valley or that honeymoon hot spot of yore, Niagara Falls.
Gay-rights advocates are hoping the vote will galvanize the movement around the country and help it regain momentum after an almost identical bill was defeated here in 2009 and similar measures failed in 2010 in New Jersey and this year in Maryland and Rhode Island.
The sticking point over the past few days: Republican demands for stronger legal protections for religious groups that fear they will be hit with discrimination lawsuits if they refuse to allow their facilities to be used for gay weddings.
Now, all 32 Republicans have approved stronger religious protections agreed to by Cuomo and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.
Deputy Majority Leader Thomas Libous of Binghamton, who opposes gay marriage, said that after hours of passionate debate behind closed doors he still doesn't know if there are enough votes to pass the bill.
"We've had some great conferences and nobody was told to vote yes or no," he said. "People spoke from their hearts."
New York, the nation's third most populous state, would join Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and Washington, D.C., in allowing same-sex couples to wed.
For five months in 2008, gay marriage was legal in California, the biggest state in population, and 18,000 same-sex couples rushed to tie the knot there before voters overturned the state Supreme Court ruling that allowed the practice. The constitutionality of California's ban is now before a federal appeals court.
While court challenges in New York are all but certain, the state - unlike California - makes it difficult for the voters to repeal laws at the ballot box. Changing the law would require a constitutional convention, a long, drawn-out process.
Movement on the bill comes after more than a week of stop-and-start negotiations, rumors, closed-door meetings and frustration on the part of advocates.
Online discussions took on a nasty turn with insults and vulgarities peppering the screens of opponents and supporters alike and security was beefed up in the capitol to give senators easier passage to and from their conference room.
Despite New York City's liberal Democratic politics and large and vocal gay community, previous efforts to legalize same-sex marriage failed over the past several years, in part because the rest of the state is more conservative than the city.
If the bill succeeds this time, it would reflect the powerful support of New York's new governor, who lobbied hard for the measure, and perhaps a change in public attitudes. Opinion polls for the first time are showing majority support for same-sex marriage, and Congress recently repealed the "don't ask, don't tell" policy that barred gays from serving openly in the military.
In the weeks leading up to the action in New York, some Republicans who opposed the bill in 2009 came forward to say they were supporting it for reasons of conscience and a duty to ensure civil rights.
Pressure to vote for gay marriage also has come from celebrities, athletes and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the Republican-turned-independent who has long used his own fortune to help bankroll GOP campaigns and who personally lobbied some undecided lawmakers. Lady Gaga has been urging her 11 million Twitter followers to call New York senators in support of the bill.
Representatives of the Roman Catholic Church, Orthodox rabbis and other conservative religious leaders are fighting the measure, and their GOP allies have pressed hard for legal protections for religious organizations that object to gay marriage.
Each side of the debate was funded by more than $1 million from national and state advocates who waged media blitzes and promised campaign cash for lawmakers who sided with them.
But GOP senators said it was Cuomo's passionate appeals in the governor's mansion on Monday night and in closed-door, individual meetings that were perhaps most persuasive.
The bill would make New York the third state, after Vermont and New Hampshire, to legalize marriage through a legislative act and without being forced to do so by a court.
Associated Press writer Michael Virtanen contributed to this report.
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