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Marriage Equality Foes Respond in New York

Marriage Equality Foes Respond in New York

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Opponents of marriage equality are pursuing last-minute efforts to stop the growing momentum for a bill that could receive a vote in the New York state legislature this week.

Claiming to represent conservative Christian evangelical, Catholic, and Jewish voters, advocates against the legislation responded to a series of developments on Monday that put New York within two senate votes of becoming the most populous state in the nation to give same-sex couples the right to marry. In a single afternoon in Albany, three undecided Democratic state senators who voted no in 2009 - Joseph Addabbo, Shirley Huntley, and Carl Kruger - announced their support for the measure, followed by the first Republican senator, James Alesi, to publicly voice his support, prompting Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the coalition working with him to decide to send a bill to the senate for consideration.

In response to the breakthroughs, New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms, a group that represents evangelical Protestants in the state, released an open letter to senate majority leader Dean Skelos on Tuesday promising a "bitter war with social conservatives" should the Republican-led senate pass the marriage equality bill. Skelos opposes the bill but has said he would not block it from coming to a vote, pending consultation with his 32-member conference. The conference will meet shortly to discuss the bill, and the open letter aims at the heart of their political calculations to maintain and increase their majority in the senate, the last bastion of Republican power in the state.

"Historically, one of the strengths of the senate GOP has been its ability to stand together for the good of the conference," said the letter from the Rev. Jason McGuire and the Rev. Duane Motley. "Whenever Republicans attempt to split the social and fiscal conservatives, there is a price to pay. In 2012, should same-sex 'marriage' pass, the pound of flesh will come from the Republican majority."

Ticking off a series of legislative advances for LGBT rights and reproductive freedoms that Republican senators either enabled or failed to stop in the past decade, the letter says, "This kind of performance does not win Catholic, Evangelical, Orthodox Jewish, Tea Party or other conservative voters to the Republican Party, and has led to some of the splits the party has seen in recent years in the 23rd Congressional District, the 2010 gubernatorial race and most recently the 26th Congressional District."

The last part refers to two upstate congressional seats in conservative districts won by Democrats in the past two years in part because of third party candidates, and to the landslide victory of Gov. Andrew Cuomo over his challenger, Carl Paladino, who clinched the party's nomination in an upset to establishment Republicans.

New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms is helping to sponsor a rally of Christian bishops and clergy members at New York City Hall on Tuesday afternoon to respond to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has contributed high-profile lobbying, fund-raising and advocacy to the marriage equality campaign. Other sponsors include the Alliance Defense Fund and the National Organization for Marriage, which has issued an action alert urging members to contact 14 key state senators, including the four who announced their support on Monday.

Last month, NOM announced it planned to spend $500,000 in New York on mailings, robo-calls and a TV ad used in other states that falsely claims passage of the marriage equality bill would put same-sex marriage in school curricula. The group also pledged to spend $1 million to defeat lawmakers who support the bill, and its president Brian Brown appeared at a rally against marriage equality on May 15 in the Bronx led by state senator Ruben Diaz Sr., now the sole Democratic senator standing against the bill.

Taking a page from the marriage equality advocates' playbook, the rally at New York City Hall on Tuesday will feature former New York Giants wide receiver David Tyree, a Christian who opposes the bill. The Human Rights Campaign has released videos for marriage equality former New York Giants defensive end Michael Strahan and team owner Steve Tisch, following videos from the NBA's Steve Nash and the NHL's Sean Avery, who traveled to Albany with actress Cynthia Nixon to lobby lawmakers on Tuesday.

The New York State Catholic Conference, which lobbies for the public policy goals of the Catholic Church in the state, can be expected to lean hard on undecided Republican senators, a number of whom identify as Roman Catholic. Religion did not deter Alesi, however, who said he was raised Roman Catholic but wanted to signal that Republicans can support marriage equality and remain politically viable.

In making his announcement, Alesi crossed the Conservative Party of New York State, which endorses Republicans for office and has vowed to withhold its influential line from any lawmaker that supports the marriage equality bill. Alesi appears to be counting instead on the backing of gay donors and their allies, who have helped unseat three senators of both parties who voted against marriage equality in 2009. New Yorkers United for Marriage, the bipartisan coalition of advocacy groups working with Cuomo, has raised nearly $2 million in the past two months, more than half of it from Republican donors.

In a telephone interview with The Advocate on Tuesday morning, Conservative Party chairman Michael Long said that his promise not to endorse lawmakers who vote for the bill still stands and that he hoped Alesi, whom he said "broke a trust," might reverse his position.

"I think we've made it clear that you cannot receive the Conservative Party endorsement if you vote for the bill," said Long. "My hope is that maybe if he changed his mind yesterday, he may change his mind again if a vote comes or before a vote comes. For him to do a flip on such an important issue, I guess, evidently, he is a guy who cannot be counted on any given issue."

Asked why he would withhold endorsements in 2012 and potentially cause the Republicans to lose a senate majority more aligned with his interests than Democratic leadership, Long said, "I'm not in the business of playing power politics. It's important that we stand for principles, not the politics."

In his estimation, the need to withhold endorsements next year will not come to pass, given that Long thinks the marriage equality bill can be defeated in these final days of the legislative session.

"I believe we still have the votes," he said. "I believe we can still stop the legislation."

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