New York lawmakers passed a bill Friday night that makes theirs the sixth and most populous state to permit gay marriage. It caps a years-long struggle, perhaps increasing the odds of similar laws around the country as the public becomes more accepting of the idea.
“I think this vote today will send a message across the country,” said Governor Andrew Cuomo (D), whose negotiations with Senate Republicans proved critical to the bill’s success. “This is the direction to go, and the time to do it is now, and it’s achievable.”
New York joins five other states – Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont – and the District of Columbia, which permit same-sex marriages. Forty-one other states prohibit gay marriage, through laws or constitutional amendments that restrict the right to wed to heterosexual couples, according to a count by the Human Rights Campaign.
The bi-partisan vote in New York could inspire lawmakers in nearby states – including Maryland, Rhode Island, and New Jersey, where same-sex marriage bills have stalled or been rejected – to reconsider their stance on the issue.
Four Republicans join all but one Democrat
The Republican-controlled New York Senate approved the bill late Friday night, four days after the official end of the legislative session. It passed 33-29, with four Republicans and all but one Democrat in support.
The two Republicans whose last-minute switch in favor of the bill ensured its passage – Senators Mark Grisanti and Stephen Saland – explained their change of mind on the chamber floor.
“Who am I to say that someone does not have the same rights that I have with my wife whom I love?” said Mr. Grisanti, who acknowledged some people would “question [his] integrity” after his reversal.
The lone Democrat to vote against the bill – Senator Rubén Díaz Sr., a Pentecostal minister from the Bronx – said he was “proudly voting no,” while nearly 50,000 viewers watched the proceedings on a live webcast.
When the Senate president announced the final count, spectators in the galleries burst into applause, and some started to chant, “USA, USA.” Just before midnight, Mr. Cuomo signed the bill, which goes into effect in 30 days.
The State Assembly in recent years passed similar measures, which died in the upper chamber – including in 2009, when a Democratic-led Senate rejected a same-sex marriage bill, dealing a stunning setback to the gay rights movement.
Several developments this year helped revive the state’s gay marriage movement.
Top priority for Governor Cuomo
Governor Cuomo, a popular first-term Democrat who’s enjoyed unusual success working with the state legislature, made passage of the bill a top priority. Major gay rights groups who operated independently in the past formed a coalition, New Yorkers United for Marriage, which raised some $2 million to advance the bill. And big-name New Yorkers publicly pushed for the bill: from Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Barbara Bush, daughter of former President George W. Bush, to professional hockey player Sean Avery and musical superstar Lady Gaga.
The public also moved decisively in the direction of support for gay marriage this year.
A Gallup poll last month showed 53 percent of Americans were in support of legalized same-sex marriage – the first majority Gallup ever recorded on the issue. A widely cited Siena Research Institute poll in April found that 58 percent of New York voters backed same-sex marriage.
Opponents of the same-sex marriage bill were equally outspoken. The New York State Conservative Party, which makes influential endorsements, threatened to drop from its ticket any Republican who voted for the bill. Religious groups encouraged thousands of members to call, write, and email state representatives and urge them to oppose the bill.
Roman Catholic Church strongly opposed
The state’s Roman Catholic Church – which represents some seven million members and about 40 percent of New York voters – came out strongly against the measure. Church leaders said the law would threaten traditional marriage. “We worry that both marriage and the family will be undermined by this tragic presumption of government in passing this legislation that attempts to redefine these cornerstones of civilization,” the state’s seven bishops and archbishop said in a statement after the vote Friday night. A major concern for many religious groups and lawmakers alike was the possibility that churches and other religious organizations would be sued or penalized if they refused to perform same-sex marriages. The bill’s authors had included protections for religious institutions in the law, but opponents said they were insufficient. Debate over the religious exemptions became a major sticking point for the bill, prompting multiple meetings between the governor and leaders from both parties.
Exemptions for religious organizations
The final bill included an amendment that expanded the exemptions to include religious-affiliated not-for-profits and their employees. It also barred the state and local governments from penalizing religious groups who decline to solemnize or host same-sex ceremonies. By chance, passage of the bill coincided with New York’s annual gay pride celebration, when hundreds of thousands of revelers mark the anniversary of the Stonewall Inn riots in June 1969. Many consider the riots, which were prompted by a police crackdown on a gay bar, the beginning of the national gay rights movement.
One couple among the hundreds in New York likely to tie the knot as soon as the new law goes into effect is Jo-Ann Shain and her partner of 29 years, Mary Jo Kennedy.
“At the beginning of our relationship, we never thought that marriage would be a part of our lives,” Ms. Shain said after Friday’s vote.
The two women, a freelance medical editor and a physician, met at a public health conference in 1982. They watched the marriage vote on TV, then cheered and kissed when the final count was announced.
“I feel like I can breathe now,” said Ms. Kennedy. “I think I’ll just walk a little taller, knowing that it’s official.” She said that she, her partner and their 22-year-old daughter now have to prepare for the wedding.
“I guess we’ll just start saving money,” Kennedy said, “Just like any couple.”