The bill passed the Republican-controlled body, 33-29, and Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed it just before midnight. Voting for it were 29 Democrats and four Republicans. The Assembly had already passed it. The new law will take effect in 30 days from the signing.
Conservatives warned that the law, despite what critics said, would negatively impact religious freedom. They also said there would be electoral repercussions for Senate Republicans: It apparently was the first time a "gay marriage" or civil union bill had passed a GOP-backed body in the U.S.
The bill's passage and signing was a huge moment for the homosexual movement, which three years ago saw another big state -- California -- legalize "gay marriage" only later to prohibit it through a voter-approved constitutional amendment. That will not happen in New York, which, unlike California, does not allow citizens to drive the initiative process. Any marriage amendment in New York must be initiated by the legislature -- a highly unlikely event. It also ends a string of losses by "gay marriage" supporters, who had seen bills in Maryland and Rhode Island fail in recent weeks.
Just two years ago, a "gay marriage" bill failed in the Senate when it was controlled by Democrats. But this time, several senators flipped from "no" to "yes" votes.
The new law says that, when examining New York marriage laws, "all gender-specific language" shall be defined "in a gender-neutral manner." It also recognizes marriages "without regard to whether the parties are of the same or different sex."
New York's population, which ranks third nationally, is more than the combined populations of the five states where "gay marriage" already is legal: Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut and Iowa. New York is the third state to pass such a bill via the legislative process.
New York's influence on other states, particularly New Jersey -- where "gay marriage" is not legal -- is viewed as significant by many observers. The state is influential for another reason: Most major television outlets are headquartered there.
Supporters of "gay marriage" hope that a groundswell of states passing such bills will help create momentum for the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down all traditional marriage laws and legalize "gay marriage" in all 50 states. The nation's highest court, though, will have to weigh other facts: 29 states define marriage as between a man and a woman in their state constitutions. "Gay marriage" also has yet to win even once at the ballot box. The court has not taken up a "gay marriage" case, and one could be months if not years away.
"Eventually we have to have one standard of justice in this country and establish that sexual orientation is not a basis for discrimination," Mary Bonauto, an attorney with the legal group Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, told the Associated Press.
Evan Wolfson, president of the pro-"gay marriage" group Freedom to Marry, said he hopes to see it legalized nationwide by 2020, AP reported.
The fact that the bill passed a Republican-controlled body irked conservatives, who thought that when the GOP took over the Senate in November any "gay marriage" bill was all but dead.
Yet the bill picked up momentum in recent days when a handful of Republican senators, working with Cuomo and Assembly Democratic leaders, carved out language that would provide some religious liberty protections. The extent of those protections, though, was unclear, even as the bill was passing.
The National Organization for Marriage, which opposed the bill, called it "sham religious liberty language." After "gay marriage" was legalized in Massachusetts in 2004, Catholic Charities chose to get out of adoptions instead of being forced to place children in same-sex homes.
The religious liberty language that passed the New York Senate also has nothing to prevent "gay marriage" from being discussed as normal in elementary schools -- something that has happened in other states.
Conservatives also noted the language does nothing to protect traditionalists against societal pressure to back "gay marriage" -- pressure that has resulted in lost jobs in some cases. In Canada, Sportsnet TV host Damian Goddard was fired May 11, the day after he stated his opposition to "gay marriage" in a Tweet. It is legal in Canada. In the U.S., Olympic gold medalist gymnast Peter Vidmar signed on as the United States' "chief of mission" for the 2012 London Olympics in April but stepped down under pressure after news reports showed he had donated $2,000 in 2008 to help pass California Proposition 8 and appeared at two rallies in support of it. Prop 8 reversed a law that had legalized "gay marriage."
Although most of the votes for the bill came from Democrats, it was the Republican conference that allowed the bill to come to the floor -- a fact that social conservative leaders say they will remember in 2012 elections. The GOP holds a slim 32-30 lead, and Republican senators worry the bill's passage will demoralize their base. The National Organization for Marriage -- which played a key role in overturning "gay marriage" laws in Maine and California -- had pledged $1 million in recent weeks to help defeat any GOP senator who voted for the bill. On Friday night, the organization doubled that, to $2 million.
Maggie Gallagher, founder of the National Organization for Marriage, warned, "New York Republicans are responsible for passing gay marriage. The party will pay a grave price."
"In state after state, Democrats who control a chamber in support of their base have prevented votes favorable to marriage: Iowa, West Virginia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania," she wrote at NationalReview.com. "When Democrats are in the minority, they've demonstrated an extraordinary commitment to their base -- in Wisconsin and Indiana fleeing the state to prevent a vote."
Republicans in New York, she wrote, did not represent their base.
"The National Organization for Marriage has committed $2 million to persuading Republicans: Voting for gay marriage has consequences," she wrote. "Sad that the N.Y. GOP has caved. Consequences to be continued."
Family Research Council President Tony Perkins also blamed Republicans.
"While it was the Democrats who were pushing this agenda, it is the Republicans in the N.Y. Senate who ultimately allowed this to happen, especially Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos," Perkins said. "Sadly, the families of New York are not represented well by either of the state's major parties on this issue."
The only Democrat to oppose the bill, Sen. Ruben Diaz, had urged the GOP not to bring the bill to the floor.
"It is the Republican Party that will provide the vote to pass this legislation," Diaz, a Pentecostal minister, said during floor debate.
Polls of state citizens had shown mixed results. A NY1/YNN-Marist Poll of 941 adults April 25-29 showed that by 53-46 percent New Yorkers believe marriage should "only be between a man and a woman." The same poll showed 50 percent supporting "gay marriage," 25 percent backing civil unions and 25 percent saying there should be no legal recognition. Meanwhile, the National Organization for Marriage released Tuesday a poll it commissioned showing that 57 percent of registered voters agree that "marriage should only be between a man and a woman." The poll of 302 registered voters was conducted June 18-19.
Michael Foust is associate editor of Baptist Press.
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