NEW YORK — Many obstacles are ahead for supporters of same-sex marriage, and eventually they will need Congress or the Supreme Court to embrace their goal. For the moment, though, they are jubilantly channeling the lyrics of “New York, New York.”
“Now that we’ve made it here, we’ll make it everywhere,” said prominent activist Evan Wolfson, who took up the cause of marriage equality as a law student three decades ago.
With a historic vote by its Legislature late Friday, New York became the sixth — and by far the most populous — state to legalize same-sex marriage since Massachusetts led the way, under court order, in 2004.
With the new law, which takes effect after 30 days, the number of Americans in same-sex marriage states more than doubles. New York’s population of 19 million surpasses the combined total of Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire and Iowa, plus the District of Columbia.
The outcome — a product of intensive lobbying by Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) — will have nationwide repercussions. Activists hope the New York vote will help persuade judges and politicians across the country, including a hesitant President Obama, that support of same-sex marriage is now a mainstream viewpoint and a winning political stance.
“New York sends the message that marriage equality across the country is a question of ‘when,’ not ‘if,’ ” said Fred Sainz, a vice president of the Human Rights Campaign.
Wolfson, president of the advocacy group Freedom to Marry, said the goal is attainable by 2020, or sooner, “if we do the work and keep making the case.”
The work — as envisioned by leading activists — is a three-pronged strategy unfolding at the state level, in dealings with Congress and the Obama administration, and in the courts where several challenges to the federal ban on gay marriage are pending.
“This will be a big boost to our efforts nationally,” said Richard Socarides, a former Clinton White House adviser on gay rights. “It will help in the pending court cases to show that more states are adopting same-sex marriage, and it will help in the court of public opinion.”
The New York bill cleared the Republican-controlled Senate in a 33 to 29 vote, thanks to crucial support from four GOP senators who joined all but one Democrat in voting yes. The Democratic-led Assembly, which previously approved the bill, passed the Senate’s stronger religious exemptions in the measure, and Cuomo swiftly signed it into law.
Gay rights activists have been heaping praise on Cuomo for leading the push for the bill, seizing on an issue that many politicians of both parties have avoided. Yet the Senate vote marked the first time a Republican-controlled legislative chamber in any state has supported same-sex marriage, and several prominent Republican donors contributed to the lobbying campaign on behalf of the bill.
Brian Brown, president of the conservative National Organization for Marriage, vowed to seek defeat of the New York Republicans who helped the marriage bill pass. He also predicted victory for the amendment to ban gay marriage next year in Minnesota, and said this would belie the claims that the same-sex marriage campaign would inevitably prevail nationwide.
“We’ve won every free, fair vote of the people,” Brown said Saturday. “Back-room deals in Albany are not an indication of what people in this country think about marriage.”
Looking long term, gay marriage advocates see nationwide victory coming in one of two ways — either congressional legislation or a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that would require all states to recognize same-sex marriages.
“The way you do that is creating a critical mass of states and a critical mass of public opinion — some combination that will encourage Congress and the Supreme Court,” Wolfson said. “By winning New York we add tremendous energy to the national conversation that grows the majority.”
Obama, when elected, said he supported broadening rights for gay couples but opposed legalizing same-sex marriage. More recently, he has said his position is “evolving,” and he asked gay activists at a New York City fundraiser last week for patience.
Nonetheless, frustrations are mounting. Freedom to Marry says more than 112,000 people have signed its “Say I Do” appeal to the president, and gay marriage supporters have launched an EvolveAlready campaign on Twitter.
Several recent opinion polls — by Gallup and the Associated Press, among others — have shown that a majority of Americans now approve of same-sex marriage, which a decade ago lagged below 40 percent support. Particularly strong backing for gay marriage among young people, who’ve grown up watching gay-friendly films and TV programs, has prompted many analysts across the political spectrum to suggest the trend is irreversible.
Some conservatives, however, say the opinion polls are belied in the voting booth and point to the steady stream of approvals of state-level bans on same-sex marriage.
“The opposition has created an illusion of momentum but not a real base of support or track record of victory in the courts,” said Brian Raum, senior counsel with the conservative Alliance Defense Fund.