ALBANY, N.Y. >> New York lawmakers narrowly voted to legalize same-sex marriage today, handing activists a breakthrough victory in the state where the gay rights movement was born.
New York will become the sixth state where gay couples can wed and the biggest by far.
"We are leaders and we join other proud states that recognize our families and the battle will now go on in other states," said Sen. Thomas Duane, a Democrat.
Gay rights advocates are hoping the vote will galvanize the movement around the country and help it regain momentum after an almost identical bill was defeated here in 2009 and similar measures failed in 2010 in New Jersey and this year in Maryland and Rhode Island.
Though New York is a relative latecomer in allowing gay marriage, it is considered an important prize for advocates, given the state’s size and New York City’s international stature and its role as the birthplace of the gay rights movement, which is considered to have started with the Stonewall riots in Greenwich Village in 1969.
The New York bill cleared the Republican-controlled state Senate on a 33-29 vote. The Democrat-led Assembly, which passed a different version last week, is expected to pass the new version with stronger religious exemptions and Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who campaigned on the issue last year, has promised to sign it. Same-sex couples can begin marrying begin 30 days after that.
The passage of New York’s legislation was made possible by two Republican senators who had been undecided.
Sen. Stephen Saland voted against a similar bill in 2009, helping kill the measure and dealing a blow to the national gay rights movement.
"While I understand that my vote will disappoint many, I also know my vote is a vote of conscience," Saland said in a statement to The Associated Press before the vote. "I am doing the right thing in voting to support marriage equality."
Gay couples in gallery wept during Saland’s speech.
Sen. Mark Grisanti, a GOP freshman from Buffalo, also said he would vote for the bill. Grisanti said he could not deny anyone what he called basic rights.
The effects of the law could be felt well beyond New York: Unlike Massachusetts, which pioneered gay marriage in 2004, New York has no residency requirement for obtaining a marriage license, meaning the state could become a magnet for gay couples across the country who want to have a wedding in Central Park, the Hamptons, the romantic Hudson Valley or that honeymoon hot spot of yore, Niagara Falls.
New York, the nation’s third most populous state, will join Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and Washington, D.C., in allowing same-sex couples to wed.
For five months in 2008, gay marriage was legal in California, the biggest state in population, and 18,000 same-sex couples rushed to tie the knot there before voters overturned the state Supreme Court ruling that allowed the practice. The constitutionality of California’s ban is now before a federal appeals court.
While court challenges in New York are all but certain, the state — unlike California — makes it difficult for the voters to repeal laws at the ballot box. Changing the law would require a constitutional convention, a long, drawn-out process.
The sticking point over the past few days: Republican demands for stronger legal protections for religious groups that fear they will be hit with discrimination lawsuits if they refuse to allow their facilities to be used for gay weddings.
The climactic vote came after more than a week of stop-and-start negotiations, rumors, closed-door meetings and frustration on the part of advocates. Online discussions took on a nasty turn with insults and vulgarities peppering the screens of opponents and supporters alike and security was beefed up in the capitol to give senators easier passage to and from their conference room.
The night before, President Barack Obama encouraged lawmakers to support gay rights during a fundraiser with New York City’s gay community. The vote also is sure to charge up annual gay pride events this weekend, culminating with parades Sunday in New York City, San Francisco and other cities.
Despite New York City’s liberal Democratic politics and large and vocal gay community, previous efforts to legalize same-sex marriage failed over the past several years, in part because the rest of the state is more conservative than the city.
The bill’s success this time reflected the powerful support of Cuomo and perhaps a change in public attitudes. Opinion polls for the first time are showing majority support for same-sex marriage, and Congress recently repealed the "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy that barred gays from serving openly in the military.
In the week leading up to the vote in New York, some Republicans who opposed the bill in 2009 came forward to say they were supporting it for reasons of conscience and a duty to ensure civil rights.
Pressure to vote for gay marriage also came from celebrities, athletes and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the Republican-turned-independent who has long used his own fortune to help bankroll GOP campaigns and who personally lobbied some undecided lawmakers. Lady Gaga has been urging her 11 million Twitter followers to call New York senators in support of the bill.
While the support of the Assembly was never in doubt, it took days of furious deal-making to secure two Republican votes needed for passage in the closely divided Senate.
Representatives of the Roman Catholic Church, Orthodox rabbis and other conservative religious leaders fought the measure, and their GOP allies pressed hard for stronger legal protections for religious organizations.
Each side of the debate was funded by more than $1 million from national and state advocates who waged media blitzes and promised campaign cash for lawmakers who sided with them.
But GOP senators said it was Cuomo’s passionate appeals in the governor’s mansion on Monday night and in closed-door, individual meetings that were perhaps most persuasive.
The bill makes New York only the third state, after Vermont and New Hampshire, to legalize marriage through a legislative act and without being forced to do so by a court.