Victory So Sweet!

People celebrated in front of the Stonewall Inn in Chelsea on Friday when it was announced that marriage equality in New York finally passed.

Governor Andrew Cuomo signs marriage equality law passed by Senate 33-29

By Paul Schindler

In a 33-29 vote, the New York State Senate has approved marriage equality legislation introduced by Governor Andrew Cuomo and approved by the Assembly.

The Senate vote came shortly after 10 p.m. on June 24, and by midnight the governor had signed the new law. Gay and lesbian couples can begin marrying on July 24.

New York is the sixth and largest state granting same-sex couples equal marriage rights –– joining Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Iowa, and the District of Columbia.

In a press conference moments after the vote, the governor, after reviewing other achievements of the legislative session that ended with the marriage vote, said, “What we did here tonight really brings it all home. This state, when it is at its finest, is a beacon of justice.”

Cuomo acknowledged the work of the two out gay legislators –– Upper West Side Assemblyman Daniel O’Donnell and Chelsea Senator Tom Duane –– who led the charge in their respective houses. He also singled out the help of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who paid two visits to Albany to lobby senators over the past month, former Governor David Paterson for putting the issue “on the radar and on the agenda,” and gay advocates who he said were “sophisticated, smart, and constructive” in their efforts.

Arguing that the New York law “brings this discussion to a new plane” nationwide, Cuomo said, “I am always proud to be a New Yorker, but tonight I am especially proud to be a New Yorker.”

Several hours after the victory, Duane, acknowledging that two of the votes, one of which was needed to bring the measure over the top, became known publicly only during the brief floor debate, said, “Legislation in Albany is always a work in progress. And it’s never over ‘til it’s over.”

In May, the governor said he would move on the legislation only if he had confidence it would succeed. On June 13, Cuomo, Duane, O’Donnell, and the advocacy groups working together in the New Yorkers United for Marriage coalition decided to push forward with a bill from the governor knowing that each of the players still had to keep “doing our tasks,” as the senator phrased it, to bring the ball over the line with at least 32 votes.

Ross Levi, executive director of the Empire State Pride Agenda, offered a similar perspective.

“We knew we had 31 votes,” he said. “To know we had that number, it just didn’t make sense not to go for a vote.”

O’Donnell said that over the past two weeks he was more concerned about securing agreement from the majority Senate Republican conference to allow a floor vote than in getting enough votes for passage.

“I always knew we had the votes, but not always that we would get to vote,” O’Donnell said, explaining that unlike the first time the Senate took up marriage equality, in late 2009, as the Assembly sponsor he was far more engaged in the strategizing over the Senate effort this year.

It was, in fact, the drama of whether the Republicans, who hold a slim majority in the Senate, would let marriage equality advocates have their vote that most captivated observers in the past two weeks.

The victory –– which comes more than four years after the Assembly first approved such legislation, introduced by then-Governor Eliot Spitzer –– arrived just in time for the June 26 LGBT Pride Parade down Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue, and will undoubtedly inject an unprecedented mood of celebration to an already festive event.

The 33 yes votes included 29 of the Senate’s 30 Democrats and four among the 32 majority Republicans.

The Republicans who voted in favor were James Alesi of Rochester and Roy McDonald of Troy, who announced their support last week, and freshman Mark Grisanti of Buffalo and his veteran colleague Stephen Saland of Poughkeepsie, who first made known their positions during the floor debate. Saland took the lead in negotiating opposite Cuomo in crafting religious protection language that made the victory possible.

The successful vote represents a remarkable turnaround for marriage equality’s prospects in New York. In December 2009, the Senate rejected legislation put forward by former Governor Paterson in a 38-24 vote, with eight Democrats joining all 30 Republicans in opposition.

During the floor debate Friday night, Duane spoke with considerable emotion about coming out to his parents in 1972 at 17 or 18; they were worried, he said, that he would lead a “sad, lonely” life. He also talked about fighting for the rights of gay men facing eviction when they lost partners to AIDS in the 1980s, and then concluded by saying, “I want to thank Governor Cuomo. I want to thank him for his incredible and truthful and honest leadership on this.”

Asked if the governor had been “indispensible” to this year’s successful effort, O’Donnell responded, “No question.” Levi agreed with that.

O’Donnell and Duane both pointed to the hours of negotiation in which Cuomo personally engaged regarding religious protections in the ten days between introducing his bill on June 14 and the night of passage.

Saland and Grisanti –– who were among the only five senators who spoke, the other three Democrats –– addressed the importance of the bill’s religious protections.

Grisanti, who six months ago was telling people he was a no vote, acknowledged, “As a Catholic, I was brought up to think of marriage as between a man and a woman.” But explaining that he was an attorney as well as a Catholic, he added, “I cannot come up with a good legal argument against same-sex marriage.” He added, “My belief is that a man can be wiser today than yesterday.”

In concluding his remarks, Grisanti said he considered the language changes spelling out the rights of religious organizations that Saland had won essential if New York were to enact marriage equality. In a nod to the reality that political support for equal marriage rights in the state has mushroomed in just a few short years, he warned, “If this bill fails, I fear those protections won’t be there the next time this comes up.”

The issue of religious protections evolved quickly in the space of two weeks, but from the perspective of the governor, O’Donnell, and Levi never “crossed the line,” as Cuomo phrased it a week ago.

The bill the Assembly passed in 2007 merely made clear that a member of the clergy was under no obligation to officiate at any marriage to which they objected. The wording contained in the governor’s bill on June 14, drawing on language already in state human rights law, also spelled out that religious bodies and benevolent associations can deny same-sex wedding celebrations access to facilities they operate without running afoul of public accommodations nondiscrimination requirements.

The language finally agreed to by the Senate and the Assembly went a couple of steps further. First, it added non-profit organizations run by religious organizations from the public accommodations requirements regarding marriage ceremonies and celebrations. It also immunized such organizations –– and now their employees as well –– and clergy not only from civil claims but also from adverse actions by state and local governments. For example, the non-profit day care center run by a church that refuses to marry same-sex couples cannot be barred from competing for public funding for which it would otherwise be eligible.

The new language also made clear that no other laws, including those enacted by local or municipal governments, could supercede the protections afforded religious groups in the marriage equality statute.

And it made the new law’s provisions non-severable –– that is, if one portion of the law is declared unconstitutional, it is thrown out entirely. Saland explained that provision was critical for him, and it clearly provides insurance for those who might worry that the religious protections built into the law could later be challenged in court.

Speaking after the vote, the governor said the non-severability of the law simply articulated his view that religious freedom and marriage equality have equal status as core values to protect.

O’Donnell argued that nothing in the new language created any new concepts in New York State law or eroded existing civil rights protections for the LGBT community.

It was left to Saland to explain the compromise religious language on the Senate floor. After a sober, even dry presentation of the legal technicalities, he said, “My intellectual and emotional journey has ended here, which I define as treating everybody equally, including on marriage. To do anything otherwise would, I believe, fly in the face of my upbringing.”

Then with his voice showing signs of strain, he added, “As I said, I know it will probably disappoint many. But I know that if my parents were here they would say I did the right thing.”

In an angry rebuke of Saland –– and of the Republicans generally, for their having allowed the matter to get to the floor for a vote –– Bronx Democrat Ruben Diaz, Sr., the only senator to speak in opposition, charged, “It is the Republican Party that will provide the margin of victory.” Gay activists, he said, “are making the Republican Party do what they failed to make the Democrats do,” when they ran the Senate at the time of the failed 2009 marriage vote.

That sort of rancor, even among those who voted no, was rare, according to Jeffrey Friedman, board president of Marriage Equality New York’s Political Action Committee. Spending days in the Capitol corridors as he and his fellow activists waited for the Republican conference to finally come to a decision on allowing a vote, Friedman had numerous friendly encounters with senators committed to voting no.

One Republican senator, whom he would not name, took him aside several days before the vote and said, “I will probably not be on the right side of history with my vote. But it definitely will pass.”

Friedman watched the floor debate in the chamber with his seven-year-old son, Josh. Frequently, he said, the Republican majority leader, Dean Skelos, who like Friedman is from Long Island, glanced up at the activist and his young child. When the tally was concluded, Friedman said, Skelos, who was among the 29 who had cast a no vote, “had one of the biggest smiles on his face.”

For O’Donnell, the vote capped a four-year effort that began in 2007, when, he said, marriage equality was polling 38-40 percent in New York and the Assembly’s top Democrat, Sheldon Silver, “my Orthodox Jewish speaker gave me the bill and said run with it.” Less than two months later, O’Donnell won the first of four successful votes on marriage equality.

“I can’t adequately describe the euphoria and the release of anxiety I feel,” he told Gay City News an hour after the victory was ours