June 24, 2011

NEW YORK has become the sixth state to legalize same-sex marriage. Not by court order, but by a vote of 33 to 29 of the state Senate. With leadership from the highest reaches of state government, gay and lesbian couples who longed for the rights and responsibilities, the dignity and respect, that come with marriage will soon be able to do so legally in the Empire State.

New York joins Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and the District of Columbia in allowing gays to wed. A court challenge to a 2008 amendment to the California state constitution that banned gay marriage there is wending its way through the federal appeals court process. If marriage-equality proponents succeed in the Golden State, 23.3 percent of Americans will live in states where gay couples can legally wed.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), who took office in January, made legalizing same-sex marriage a priority. He used the bully pulpit to garner support and harnessed the power and prestige of his office behind the scenes. A coalition of organizations conducted the largest grass-roots effort the state had ever seen.

Nothing was assured. Bills on rent control in New York City and property tax caps for the state needed to be hammered out first. There was opposition from the Conservative Party, whose chairman threatened to mount a primary challenge to any Republican senator who voted for the measure. The Catholic archbishop of New York, Timothy M. Dolan, called marriage equality “detrimental for the common good.” Legislators insisted on (and secured) language to protect religious institutions from having to perform or recognize same-sex marriages. The legislative session stretched four days past its June 20 scheduled ending.

The history made in New York stands in stark contrast to the disappointment in Maryland in March, when a similar effort failed. After passing the state Senate, a marriage-equality bill was referred back to committee in the House of Delegates after lawmakers who had supported the bill backed down in the face of opposition. Among those reneging on their commitment were Dels. Tiffany T. Alston (D-Prince George’s) and Sam Arora (D-Montgomery County), who got elected campaigning on the issue. For his part, Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) supported the marriage-equality bill. He even lobbied some legislators behind the scenes. But as we learned in New York, legislation of this significance needs more than rhetorical hand-holding by the governor. It needs determined leadership.