New York voted Friday night to allow same-sex marriage, becoming the most diverse and populated state to pass legislation that gay advocates hope will jump-start a nationwide movement that has stalled in recent years.
The 62-member, Republican-controlled Senate approved the bill 33 to 29, dramatically closing a legislative session that went into overtime as conservative lawmakers fought for changes to enhance protection for faith-based groups opposed to recognizing gay marriages.
Late Friday afternoon, lawmakers agreed on an amendment that the bill's sponsor, Assembly member Daniel O'Donnell, said made “clearer than clear” that religious groups would not be required to perform same-sex marriages. As protests by supporters and opponents alike crescendoed outside the Senate chamber, the vote was called.
The bill would take effect 30 days after it is signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat who made it a centerpiece of his election campaign last year.
“New York sends the message that marriage equality across the country is a question of 'when,' not 'if,' ” said Fred Sainz of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay advocacy group. “The fact that New York will double the percentage of the U.S. population afforded marriage equality fundamentally changes the equation.”
Though four New England states, Iowa and the District of Columbia have legalized same-sex marriage over the last decade, 30 states have approved constitutional amendments to ban it. California's Supreme Court approved gay marriage in 2008, but six months later — and after 18,000 couples were married — state voters approved Proposition 8 to repeal the law. The repeal is being challenged in federal court.
The New York effort took on a heightened importance to gay advocates after legislatures in New Jersey as well as Maryland and Rhode Island, considered liberal bastions, failed to approve gay marriage.
O'Donnell, the first openly gay member of the New York State Assembly and a driving force behind the movement here, said its passage should be a milestone in national acceptance of gay marriages.
“People forget that New York is not just New York City and there are parts of this state that have more in common with Ohio than they do Greenwich Village,” said O'Donnell, referring to the Manhattan neighborhood that many consider the birthplace of the gay rights movement. “In the end, New York is much more reflective of the nation than people are aware, and when the history of the gay rights movement is written, this bill, this vote, will probably be the tipping point” in making the rest of the country accept same-sex marriage.
But opponents cautioned against making too much of a bill that only squeaked through the legislature of one of the most progressive states in America.
Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, vowed that in conjunction with the state's Conservative Party, his group would spend more than $1 million targeting lawmakers who supported the bill in the next election.
“All [the vote] means is that Gov. Cuomo was able to strongarm and push through, because of the weakness of some Republicans, a gay marriage bill,” Brown said. “It doesn't go away and we're going to make sure the people are held accountable.”
Cuomo was said to be determined to see the legislation passed in time for Manhattan's Gay Pride weekend; he was also so confident that he gave advocates approval to print signs “recognizing his leadership.”
O'Donnell first introduced a same-sex marriage bill in 2007. The Assembly approved it three times in five years, only to see it fail each time in the Senate. This effort, backed by a new Democratic governor, worked. A pivotal moment came last week when three Democrats and one Republican who voted against same-sex marriage in 2009 changed sides, saying they were swayed by public opinion in their districts.
When a second Republican, Sen. Roy McDonald, announced his support, proponents needed just one more vote for passage. McDonald said his decision was based on his conscience as much as constituents' opinions. “You get to the point where you evolve in your life where everything isn't black and white, good and bad, and you try to do the right thing,” he said.
© 2011 McClatchy-Tribune Information Services
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