Marriage Equality Waiting Game in New York

By Julie Bolcer

Originally published on Advocate.com June 21 2011 12:25 AM ET

The scheduled last day of the legislative session in New York came and went on Monday without a highly anticipated vote on the marriage equality bill, with Gov. Andrew Cuomo and lawmakers locked in negotiations on a number of outstanding issues including the proposal to legalize civil marriage for same-sex couples in the nation’s third most populous state.

People close to the process in Albany said that prospects for the marriage equality bill appear more favorable than ever, but whether or not the measure will come to a vote in the senate and when depends on progress toward rent regulations and a property tax cap, in addition to unspecified religious exemptions the Republican senate majority wants to include with the marriage equality bill. Variations on the analogies of “traffic jam,” “log jam” and “air traffic control” captured a day dominated by the sense that things remain stuck until one of the pieces can be dislodged and free the other parts to move.

Monday began with dueling rallies held by marriage equality advocates and opponents, many hailing from the ranks of clergy and faith communities. The hallways of the state capitol building sounded loud and felt humid, especially in the early afternoon outside the Republican majority conference room, where advocates holding marriage equality signs stood less than 10 feet from protesters calling for lawmakers to “defend Biblical marriage.”

While people on both sides of the issue awaited some signal from the 62-member senate, where the bill has stood one vote short of passage since last week, a press conference featuring former New York Giants wide receiver David Tyree and leaders from the National Organization for Marriage called for “a people’s vote” on marriage equality. That prospect appears as improbable as Tyree's famed 2008 Super Bowl catch, with no ballot initiative process in New York and only limited referendum practices that would preclude any public vote until at least 2014, provided a constitutional amendment could pass two consecutive sessions of the legislature.

Religion figures prominently in the conversation around the marriage equality bill, where senate majority leader Dean Skelos and his Republican conference, which includes two members who have publicly expressed support for the bill, continue to negotiate stronger exemptions with Cuomo. The governor’s bill, which passed the assembly last week, includes carveouts for religious organizations and affiliated private groups, such as the Knights of Columbus, that refuse to solemnize same-sex weddings or provide facilities for the events.

Republicans are said to be concerned about protections for religious organizations that receive state funding, although people familiar with the negotiations described their focus as narrower than the demands of Greg Ball. The undecided senator from Putnam County reiterated Monday that his vote depends on increased protections for religious individuals and businesses.

Skelos emerged Monday afternoon from the first of two meetings between him, the governor and assembly speaker Sheldon Silver to say that negotiations over the religious exemptions are ongoing. The meetings between his conference and the governor have included Republican senators Kemp Hannon, Andrew Lanza and Stephen Saland, but not Ball.

“We have concerns that if you’re truly going to protect religious institutions, the issue of severability,” said Skelos to reporters. “You could have a federal judge come in, knock out all the religious protections and you could still have the gay marriage. So we’re working to protect religious to make sure that they are solid and that they will stand, and I think that’s critically important as part of these negotiations,” he said.

Skelos said the exemptions, expected to appear in chapter amendments to the bill, still needed to be ironed out before his conference could consider the whole package and determine whether or not to bring the measure to a vote. The Democratic-controlled assembly would also need to approve the amendments.

The apparent willingness of Republicans to negotiate with Cuomo, who has made marriage equality a priority this session, contributes to the growing confidence among advocates that the marriage equality vote is not a question of whether, but when. Historic levels of support for the issue, the popularity of the governor and demonstrations of gay clout at the ballot box and in fund-raising make a persuasive political case in advance of the 2012 elections, where Republicans hold a slim 32-30 majority in the senate, the last bastion of the party’s power in New York.

“It’s a done deal,” said Kitty Lambert, an activist from Buffalo who lobbied in Albany with her partner, Cherlye Rudd. “I truly believe 150% that there are good, honest senators who believe that I have human rights.”

While victory may feel increasingly inevitable, its timing remains linked for now to political developments largely outside the advocates’ control. In order to apply pressure where they can, the New Yorkers United for Marriage coalition plans to hold a Rally for Love and Marriage outside the state capitol at noon on Tuesday and urges as many people as possible to attend, with free bus transportation departing from Midtown Manhattan in the morning and returning in the afternoon.

“Things continue to progress well,” said Brian Ellner, senior New York strategist for the Human Rights Campaign, one of the five coalition members. “There are a lot of legislative items. The most important thing is to keep working hard. Folks should continue to contact their senators and urge them to support marriage equality.”