Following a three-hour meeting on Friday morning, the third such conference in as many days, Republican senators in New York emerged with no decision on whether to bring the marriage equality bill for a vote by the scheduled end of session on Monday. In fact, Majority Leader Dean Skelos said concerns about the language of the bill supersede the questions of whether and when to bring the measure to the floor.
According to Capitol Tonight, Skelos said after the meeting that his members, both those for and against the bill, feel concerned about the "unintended consequences" of the bill for religious individuals and institutions. He said there would be no vote on the marriage equality bill on Friday and he could not provide a time line for bringing the bill to the floor.
"As you know, there have been some meetings with the governor's office indicating that they are receptive to some changes, and those discussions are going to continue," said Skelos, as reported by Capitol Tonight. "There's been no decision. In fact that really was not the discussion as to whether it would come out yet, who's voting for it, who's voting against it, other than people want to feel comfortable if it is reported to the floor that there will not be, as Archbishop [Timothy] Dolan mentioned, unintended consequences to this legislation."
New York archbishop Dolan appeared on an Albany talk show Friday morning to air his concern that the bill submitted by Gov. Andrew Cuomo Tuesday and later passed by the Assembly would infringe on religious freedom. The Marriage Equality Act as written exempts religious institutions and benevolent organizations like the Knights of Columbus from solemnizing same-sex weddings and offering their private facilities for celebrations, but undecided senators seem to want more protections for religious individuals and for services such as adoption provided by Catholic agencies.
"What does it say about the presumptive omnipotence of the state that we would dare to tamper?" asked Dolan. "There aren't concessions. Religious freedom is guaranteed by the Constitution."
Dolan told radio host Fred Dicker that attorneys for the Catholic Church were working with the Cuomo administration on religious exemptions language, but he said that no marriage equality bill of any kind would ever be acceptable to his institution.
"This is not to be interpreted as a caving in on our side because we are still working to defeat this bill," said the archbishop, who added that Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn would be in the capital to lobby. Dolan, also the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, spoke from Seattle on Friday.
The governor's staff has not responded to a request for comment about the precise nature of the exemptions being discussed and how such language would fit with the state's existing nondiscrimination laws. On Thursday the governor met with senators Kemp Hannon, Andrew Lanza, and Stephen Saland to discuss the issue, and conversations are said to be ongoing.
Late Friday afternoon, after meeting with Skelos and marriage equality advocates, Cuomo spoke with reporters in Albany. According to multiple accounts on Twitter, the governor said talks on the bill's language continued and that he believed the concerns could be resolved in a legally appropriate way. He said that progress continued to be made on the marriage equality bill.
Changes to the bill's language could be included in an amendment or in a new bill, which would require the Assembly to revisit the matter. The Democratic-controlled chamber passed the bill Wednesday on an expedited schedule after requesting a message of necessity from the governor. The long-awaited delivery of the bill was widely interpreted as a sign of confidence from Cuomo that the Senate would pass the measure, as the governor repeatedly said he did not want to hold a vote that would fail, as happened in 2009.
Following a rapid series of developments Monday and Tuesday, the marriage equality bill has support from 31 senators, including two Republicans, putting it one vote shy of passage, with one more Republican senator needed to vote yes. Lack of a vote by Friday represents something of a letdown in a week that began with strong momentum, but time remains, and the session could be extended beyond Monday due to other unresolved agenda items.
"With bipartisan passage of marriage equality legislation in the state Assembly, and five additional senators from both sides of the aisle pledging to vote in of support marriage legislation, this week has been nothing short of historic for New York," said a statement from New Yorkers United for Marriage, the coalition of five LGBT organizations working to pass the bill. "We are now only days away from making marriage equality the law in our state, and we will continue to make sure that the record majority of New Yorkers who support marriage have their voices heard until a vote occurs."