Last week, the New York state legislature passed legislation legalizing marriage for same-sex couples, making it the sixth state in the nation, in addition to the District of Columbia, where gay and lesbian couples have the freedom to wed. The State Senate's passage of the bill late Friday night came after a long week of deadlock, with 31 senators publicly in favor of the bill and 31 others opposed or still undecided about their votes. In the end, it was a bipartisan effort led by Governor Andrew Cuomo that brought the bill to the floor, and the courage of senators on both sides to break with their parties and vote with their conscience that lead to the bill's final passage.
New York's "conscience vote" was a refreshing change. In recent months and years, marriage bills in other states have fallen victim to party line votes, often with little to no substantive discussion. Just a few short months ago, a Colorado civil unions bill was defeated on a party line vote after opponents inaccurately claimed that a vote for civil unions was a vote for same-sex marriages. In contrast, the effort in New York was bipartisan from the beginning, with Democrats and Republicans meeting frequently to discuss concerns and negotiate language in the bill. In the end, four Republicans joined 29 Democrats to pass the measure and made marriage equality in the Empire State a reality.
New York is now the largest state to allow same-sex couples to wed, and passage of the bill effectively doubled the number of Americans who live in a place where same-sex marriage is legal (about 11 percent of the total population). New York joins Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont, and the District of Columbia as the seventh US jurisdiction where such marriages are now allowed.
Passage of the bill coincided with recent changes in public sentiment about same-sex marriage, both in New York and nationally. In New York, just 37 percent of the state's residents supported allowing same-sex couples to wed in 2004, but this year polls showed that support jumped to 58 percent. Nationally, a Gallup poll released in May showed that for the first time, a majority of Americans (53 percent) support same-sex marriage.
Advocates are hopeful that the victory in New York will keep the momentum going for other states seeking marriage equality. In Maryland, the House Committee retracted a same-sex marriage bill in the current legislative session with the hopes of preserving it for passage in the 2012 session. In Minnesota, proponents of marriage equality will be fighting a proposed constitutional amendment on the 2012 ballot which seeks to limit the definition of marriage to a union between one man and one woman. Finally, same-sex marriage supporters in Maine announced this week that they plan to collect signatures to put the issue of same-sex marriage on the ballot there in 2012. With the lessons of New York in mind, advocates are optimistic that the freedom to marry the person you love is closer than ever to becoming a reality nationwide.
Sarah Warbelow works with state and local legislators and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocacy organizations in pursuing their legislative priorities. Previously, Warbelow served as the program manager for the American Association of University Women Foundation Legal Advocacy Fund, specializing in education and employment discrimination law.
Suggested citation: Sarah Warbelow, Passage of New York Marriage Bill a Vote of Conscience, JURIST - Hotline, June 30, 2011, http://jurist.org/hotline/2011/06/sarah-warbelow-new-york-marriage.php.
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