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06.11.11

Andrew Cuomo Renews Push for Gay Marriage in New York

Thanks to Governor Andrew Cuomo, New York could be the first state to legislatively legalize gay marriage. John Avlon on how the momentum gathered so quickly, and why a victory would be a crucial defeat for marriage-equality opponents.

New York is on the verge of becoming the nation's largest state to legalize same sex marriage via its legislature. Supporters are hopeful that this historic civil rights measure will be brought to a vote in the state senate by the end of next week.

Governor Andrew Cuomo, with sky-high job approval numbers in the wake of a balanced budget and landmark ethics bill, is said to be pushing for the measure personally, and may meet with state senate Republican leader Dean Skelos early in the upcoming week to discuss the vote-count in an attempt to green-light a vote. If this effort is successful, it will be in large part because a broad coalition was built, including business and union leaders as well as the activist community.


Interestingly, influential Republican donors have been among the state's strongest backers of the bill—known as "freedom to marry"  in libertarian-conservative circles. Independent New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg also recently added his powerful voice to the effort.


They are far from alone. A clear majority of New Yorkers now support the bill, representing a broad based sea-change in public opinion in favor of marriage equality. Siena College and Quinnipiac University polls conducted this year found that 58 percent and 56 percent of New Yorkers, respectively, support making same sex marriage legal in the Empire State. Significantly, this includes 58 percent of upstate voters, 64 percent of suburban swing voters, 59 percent of Catholics, 59 percent of union households and 61% of independent voters.


Marriage equality is not remotely the third-rail issue it is sometimes considered. Instead, it can be more fairly seen as an idea whose time has come.

It is a time for choosing, and an opportunity for New York to lead legislatively in this civil rights fight.

This is true nationally as well as in New York. In May, the Gallup poll found a majority of Americans supported same sex marriage for the first time. Fifteen years ago, only 26 percent of Americans believed that same sex marriages should be recognized and given the same legal rights as heterosexual couples. In the last year alone, independent voters' support for marriage equality has increased ten points, from 49 percent to 59 percent. 

But New York's vote would be nationally significant because it would pass the legislative threshold that conservatives criticize other states for bypassing. In four of the five states that current grant same-sex marriage licenses—Iowa, New Hampshire, Connecticut and Massachusetts—the measure was enacted by court decision stating that the status quo was discriminatory and therefore unconstitutional. Vermont became the first state to pass marriage equality legislatively in 2009. But New York's population is larger than those 5 states combined, marking a dramatic increase in the number of Americans who would have freedom to marry the person of their choice. 

Two years ago, when the Democrats narrowly controlled the New York state senate, a bill to legalize same sex marriage went down to defeat by a margin of 38 to 24. Now, with Republicans narrowly in control, there are currently at least 26 senators listed as supporting the effort and seven undecided, indicating at this stage of the debate that they are open to supporting marriage equality. Among these undecided are Republicans Senators James Alesi, Roy MacDonald, Steve Saland and Greg Ball. If they ultimately do vote for the freedom to marry, they deserve to be applauded for their independence and commitment to principle above partisanship.

Republicans can take some comfort in the fact that language expected to be included in the New York bill would make it clear that religious institutions—churches and synagogues, for exmaple—would not be required to perform or condone same sex marriage ceremonies. This would answer one common conservative criticism of marriage equality efforts.

But the even the Republican landscape has shifted significantly around this issue since President Bush called for a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman at the height of the 2004 presidential campaign. Former first lady Laura Bush and daughter Barbara Bush have announced their support for marriage equality, as did Bush's 2004 campaign manager Ken Mehlman, who also came out as gay. In recent months, even some previously dedicated activist opponents to marriage equality—including Louis Marinelli, who organized the National Organization for Marriage's 2010 election year anti-gay-marriage tour—have also had high-profile changes of heart. 

Candidates running for the 2012 GOP nomination will face the fact that their first caucus and primary states—Iowa and New Hampshire—are among the states that have already legalized same sex marriage. Most Tea Party leaders stayed noticeably quiet when Iowa's court decision was announced. And New Hampshire's open primary means that independent voters can participate in the decidedly libertarian-minded state, giving a potential edge to candidates that don't demagogue the issue. Moreover, a Pew poll found that even increasing numbers of evangelicals and Catholics support marriage equality, especially among younger people of faith. 

The speed at which national opinion has shifted in favor of marriage equality in just the past few years is striking and unmistakable. Take a look at the generational trends and its clear that in a few decades, marriage equality might be seen as clear a moral issue as Loving v. Virginia is today. 

But the down-to-the-wire battle right now is in New York. Polls show the people support marriage equality. Diverse coalitions from unions to business leaders have come together transcending typical partisan divisions. It is a time for choosing, and an opportunity for New York to lead legislatively in this civil rights fight.