Piercing chants and bright signage filled the area outside the Republican Senate majority conference room in Albany, N.Y., where lawmakers met Wednesday morning to consider end-of-session items including a potential vote on the marriage equality bill.
Equal numbers of activists for and against the marriage equality bill sang hymns including "This Little Light of Mine" and "Amazing Grace" as they held signs urging senators to "Kill the Bill!" or "End Religious Bigotry" depending on their stance. Senators entered through a hallway that at times resembled more the atmosphere of a cathedral than a state capitol building because of all the singing and prayers.
At one point, a loud cheer erupted when Sen. Ruben Diaz Sr., the only Democrat to oppose the bill, visited the crowd. Marriage equality advocates were joined by celebrity chef Mario Batali and Audra McDonald.
The morning began with a prayer from opponents of the bill led by the Reverend Joe Roof of Calvary Baptist Church, part of the group of evangelical Christians, Catholics, and even some Tea Party activists from across the state who want the Senate to decide not to vote on the bill, perhaps as early as today, and instead hold a referendum.
"I would like to see this go to a vote of the people," said the Reverend Jason McGuire of New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms. "This is not a decision that 62 senators should make."
Informed that New York State has no ballot initiative process and only limited referendum practices that would preclude any constitutional amendment, already a remote prospect, from reaching voters until at least 2014, McGuire replied, "We're looking at thousands of years of marriage. We should think carefully before we go back on that."
Advocates for marriage equality, who represent the majority of New York voters according to multiple polls, positioned their arguments in terms of the civil right granted by the Marriage Equality Act. Gov. Andrew Cuomo submitted the proposal last week and the Assembly passed it with bipartisan support. Republican senators have said they want to finish negotiating religious exemption language in the bill before making a decision whether to take a vote, with majority leader Dean Skelos saying Wednesday morning that his conference had yet to discuss the issue.
On Tuesday, Cuomo said he was "cautiously optimistic," although his apparent call for an up-or-down vote seemed to differ somewhat from his previous statement that a vote should not happen unless guaranteed to succeed. Skelos noted the distinction Wednesday morning at the capitol.
Even as the senators met to discuss other legislative deals, anticipation of a decisive announcement about a marriage equality vote ran high at the capitol.
"Gay, straight, black, or white! Marriage is a civil right!" they chanted, while distributing carnation bouquets and wearing pink tape on their mouth. One young girl demonstrating against "H8," according to her sign, appeared to be no older than 10.
Not all the opponents saw the issue as a matter of religion, however. One leaned into a reporter to say, "They're going to impose this on our taxes. Children are going to have to learn about this in school."
Such claims, made in an advertisement by the National Organization for Marriage, have been repeatedly debunked as fraudulent.
As the afternoon approached, Republican senators continued to meet in conference for the third hour, within earshot of the ongoing protests. If the senators decide to vote on the bill, at least one more Republican must support it to reach the 32 votes required for passage. Currently, 29 Democrats and two Republicans have said they would vote yes on the bill.