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New York becomes sixth, most populous U.S. state to legalize marriage equality

New York becomes sixth, most populous U.S. state to legalize marriage equality

Update: Gov. Andew Cuomo signs the Marriage Equality Act just hours after Senate’s passage. Story here.

New York State on Friday night, June 24, became the sixth and most populous state to legalize marriage for same-sex couples.

After a tense several days past the scheduled end of the legislative session, in which it was unclear if Republican leaders in the state Senate would even allow a marriage bill to come up for a vote, the Senate voted 33 to 29 in favor of the bill. The vote was taken at approximately 10:30 p.m. EDT.

The Assembly, which passed its version of the bill on June 15, voted again on Friday to approve several amendments agreed to by Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Nassau), Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan), and Governor Andrew Cuomo (D) after they met earlier in the week. The amendments passed the Assembly 82 to 47.

Governor Cuomo, who worked closely with marriage equality advocates and sent an early version of the marriage bill to both houses of the legislature on June 14, is expected to sign the bill. No date was known as of press time. The law will go into effect 30 days after his signature.

The delay in the Senate vote, which had both marriage equality advocates and opponents on pins and needles all week, was in part because of the desire of some senators to insert additional religious exemptions—but several other contentious issues also occupied legislators in the last days of the session, including rent control and property taxes.

Skelos and Silver met Tuesday with Cuomo and reached tentative agreement on the rent and tax issues, but it was not until Friday that they reached agreement on religious exemptions to the marriage bill.

The original bill sent by Governor Cuomo to the legislature—and passed by the Assembly—said that “religious corporations” and “benevolent organizations” “shall not be required to provide accommodations, advantages, facilities or privileges related to the solemnization or celebration of a marriage.”

The amendments agreed upon Friday added the same exemptions for not-for-profit corporations that are “operated, supervised, or controlled by a religious corporation,” as well as employees who are “managed, directed, or supervised by” any of the above types of organizations.

As private organizations, however, religious groups, including charitable or educational organizations that they operate, supervise, or control, are already free from state human rights laws that require only public “accommodations, advantages, facilities or privileges” to be open to all.

The final bill contained one other new component: an “inseverability clause” stating that if any part of the marriage bill is found to be invalid by a court of law, the entire bill will be deemed invalid.

Stephen Saland (R-Poughkeepsie), speaking on the floor of the Senate before the vote, explained that the purpose of that amendment was to make sure that religious organizations would not be liable under anti-discrimination laws, and that any conflicts would be resolved in favor of the religious exemptions.

Saland’s declaration that he would vote yes was the first public confirmation that the bill had enough votes for passage. He told the Senate, “I have to define doing the right thing as treating all persons with equality. And that equality includes within the definition of marriage. . . . My vote is a vote of conscience.”

In the end, Saland was one of four Republicans voting yes. Republican senators James Alesi (R-Monroe) and Roy J. McDonald (R-Saratoga) also voted in favor of the bill, as promised the week before.

One surprise Republican vote was that of Mark Grisanti (R-Buffalo), who said that although he is a practicing Catholic, “I cannot legally come up with an argument against same-sex marriage.”

Three Democratic state senators who had voted “no” on a marriage bill in 2009—Joseph Addabbo Jr. (D-Queens), Shirley Huntley (D-Queens), and Carl Kruger (D-Brooklyn)—also voted “yes.”

Senator Tom Duane (D-Manhattan), who is openly gay, spoke to the Senate about his partner, Louis Webre, saying, “Marriage says that we are a family.” The bill, he said, is “going to strengthen my family and all New York families.”

One Democratic senator, Rubén Díaz (D-Bronx) voted against the bill.

New York is now the most populous state with marriage equality. It joins five other states—Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont—and the District of Columbia, in allowing same-sex couples to marry.

It is the third state (and the fourth jurisdiction including the District of Columbia) to enact marriage equality purely through the legislature, with no state Supreme Court ruling requiring the legislature to enact such a law.

With Wednesday’s vote, the percentage of same-sex couples living in states that allow them to marry has thus more than doubled, from 6.9 percent to 14.3 percent, according to an analysis of the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2009 American Community Survey by the Williams Institute of UCLA.

And the percentage of the U.S. population living in a state that allows same-sex couples to marry has more than doubled, from 5.1 to 11.4 percent, according to Census 2010 and the Williams Institute.

All eyes now turn to neighboring New Jersey, where Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-Mercer), the state’s only openly gay legislator, introduced a marriage equality bill June 13.

The New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney on June 20 apologized on the floor of the Senate for not voting in favor of marriage equality in January 2010, when it was defeated. Sweeney’s apology prompted Steven Goldstein, chair of New Jersey’s leading LGBT political group, Garden State Equality, to issue a statement noting that the votes are there to pass marriage equality in both houses of the legislature—but not to override the expected veto from Governor Chris Christie (R). That means, Goldstein said, that “New Jersey will have to win marriage equality through other means.”

When it became clear Friday night that New York would pass marriage equality, Garden State Equality and Lambda Legal issued a statement saying, “Soon there will be a major announcement” regarding marriage equality in New Jersey.

The New Jersey Supreme Court in June 2010 refused to hear a case that claimed the state’s civil union law did not provide full equality. It said the case must first go through the trial court process—making such a process the likely next step for advocates of marriage equality.

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