As the clock ticked down on the legislative session in New York state Wednesday, a “same-gender marriage” bill hung in the balance, with supporters hoping for a late-night vote and opponents warning Republican leaders of election consequences if it passes.
The legislative session was scheduled to conclude Monday, but the Assembly and the Senate have been meeting past that calendar deadline to pass several significant bills, among them bills on rental property regulations and property taxes. Those issues were on the front-burner in the Assembly and Senate, and it appeared a “same-gender marriage” bill would be voted on in the Senate last, if at all.
Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and his Republican caucus members, though, had not agreed on whether they would even bring it to the floor — despite multiple meetings over recent days — and they were receiving enormous pressure from conservatives to adjourn without a vote. The bill needs 32 votes to pass but has only 31 public commitments — 29 from Democrats and two from Republicans.
Skelos emerged from a meeting with Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver saying that his “colleagues and [the governor’s] counsel’s office are looking very closely at religious protections” that would be amended to the bill.
“Once we have final legislation we’ll discuss it in conference,” Skelos said.
Many conservatives said the religious protections would be inadequate. The Assembly already passed the bill.
Anything seemed possible: a late-night vote on “same-gender marriage,” a Thursday vote on it, or an adjournment without a vote. The Twitter account of Capital Tonight, a statewide TV political program, sent out a Tweet predicting a “same-gender marriage” vote if it comes to the floor “will likely be in the dead of night” because there is “no threat of live TV coverage” and there is “less chance of angry constituent calls.”
New York is seen as critical in the nationwide cultural debate over marriage’s definition. It would become, by far, the most populous and influential state to redefine marriage.
Leading the pressure on the GOP was Conservative Party chairman Michael Long, who released a statement urging the GOP not to bring the issue to the floor. In New York’s unique political system, the Conservative Party often makes or breaks GOP candidates. A candidate can appear on the ballot twice: under the GOP banner and under the Conservative banner. The candidate’s total is determined by combining the two. The GOP controls the Senate chamber by a slim 32-30 margin.
“If same-gender marriage passes, it is Republicans across the state who will pay the biggest price,” Long co-wrote in an article published at NationalReview.com. Sen. Ruben Diaz, a minister who is the only Democrat to oppose the bill, was the other author. Diaz has led the opposition to the bill.
The issue likely would have been dead weeks ago if not for a good relationship between the Senate GOP and Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who proposed a budget that Republicans mostly praised. He is pressuring Skelos to hold a vote. Cuomo is viewed as a possible presidential contender for 2016.
“The last time the Republican Party caved on a deeply important social issue — abortion — it destroyed the party’s prospects for years,” Long and Diaz wrote. They questioned why the party would promote a bill that would benefit Cuomo in 2016.
“As Brian Brown, president of [the National Organization for Marriage], quipped: ‘Selling your principles in order to get elected is wrong, selling your principles to help the other guy get elected is just plain dumb,'” Long and Diaz wrote.
Conservatives are warning the bill’s passage would have a host of negative effects on religious liberty, impacting what is taught in schools and forcing private businesses and some religiously affiliated public organizations to endorse that to which they are morally opposed.
The religious liberty concerns on the part of conservatives are real. When “same-gender marriage” was legalized in Massachusetts in 2004, Catholic Charities got out of the adoption business instead of being forced to place children in same-gender homes. After civil unions were legalized in Illinois this year, Catholic Charities in Rockford, Ill., got out of the adoption business for the same reason.
Conservatives didn’t receive any support in Wednesday’s edition of The Washington Post, where Chicago Theological Seminary professor Susan Brooks Thislethwaite argued that certain protections for religious liberty would amount to “bigotry.” For instance, she said, caterers should not be exempt.
“If you include catering, a completely contractual and voluntary arrangement to provide food services, in a ‘religious exemption’ clause, you are just catering to bigotry instead,” she wrote.
Adoption agencies, she said, also should not be exempt.
“There should be no ‘religious exemption’ when an organization is receiving federal funds,” Thislethwaite wrote.
Polls have shown mixed results. A NY1/YNN-Marist Poll of 941 adults April 25-29 showed that by 53-46 percent New Yorkers believe marriage should “only be between a man and a woman.” The same poll showed 50 percent supporting “same-gender marriage,” 25 percent backing civil unions and 25 percent saying there should be no legal recognition. Meanwhile, the National Organization for Marriage released Tuesday a poll it commissioned showing that 57 percent of registered voters agree that “marriage should only be between a man and a woman.” The poll of 302 registered voters was conducted June 18-19.