A More Civil Union

Same-sex marriage is legal in New York now, and it's about damn time.

For five days, the Republican-controlled Senate debated and amended the same-sex-marriage bill to include stronger exemptions for religious groups; the negotiations kept legislators in Albany past the summer-recess deadline and into the night yesterday. At around 10:30, all but one member of the Democratic caucus, state Sen. Ruben Diaz, and four Republicans joined the majority to pass the bill by 33-to-29. Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the law shortly before midnight, setting off jubilant celebrations in Manhattan's gay neighborhoods.

To denizens of liberal New York City -- the home of Stonewall, the birthplace of the gay-rights movement; and Act Up -- yesterday's vote marked the end of what had become an embarrassment. The state is the sixth to allow gay marriage (The District of Columbia also allows it). It's been eight years since the Massachusetts Supreme Court found that gay people deserved equal protection of the law and the right to marry, which ignited a nationwide battle over marriage and led 29 states to pass amendments to their constitutions that define the institution as being between a man and a woman. The New York bill had easily passed the state Assembly twice before, but it has always been stymied in the Senate, where representation is disproportionately skewed toward the rural and conservative areas of the state.

One of the most striking things about the week-long battle was how much of it hinged on the canard that worked so well for anti-marriage activists in California: If gay marriage is passed, religious organizations will be forced to marry same-sex couples, and businesses that object to homosexuality will be sued for refusing to provide their services at gay weddings. Under current law, religious leaders already can't be compelled to sanctify a same-sex union, making this bill's provision a politically motivated redundancy. Whether passing a same-sex marriage law without a religious exemption for businesses makes a difference is a more murky question. City and state nondiscrimination laws might have required businesses to provide their services at gay weddings -- a protection the law passed yesterday supersedes. But it's hard to imagine too many people in the wedding industry turning down money, and which gay couple would want to hire a homophobic organization anyway?

Including religious protections in the bill, however, did provide the handful of Republicans who voted for it the political cover they needed. State Sen. Mark Grisanti, a Republican, said as much in his comments before voting yes: "I believe if this bill fails, I believe that the next time around those religious protections won't be there."

Claiming to have fought for the best possible legal protections for religious organizations allowed Grisanti and the three other Republicans who joined him -- state Sens. James Alesi, Stephen Saland, and Roy McDonald -- to appease all but the most ardent gay-rights opponents (and, if you're less cynical about politicians' sincerity than I am, their moral conscience as well). Even for those who voted no, including New York Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, the religious exemptions made it easier for opponents to allow the issue to come to a vote, even though they knew this time, it would mean a victory for same-sex marriage.

When the history of same-sex marriage is written, New York will be but a footnote; it wasn't first, and it won't be the last. This is not to say that passing same-sex marriage in New York -- the media capital of the country and one of its most populous states -- is no big deal. Hundreds of thousands of gay couples in the state will now be able to pursue fulfillment in the same way as their straight friends, and it will also provide momentum for other states to pass similar laws.

But in Grisanti's words one can hear the echo of state Sen. Ruben Diaz's wistful comment right before the vote: "gay marriage is inevitable in New York." That's true elsewhere, too.

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