NY gay marriage showdown could be Wednesday

June 21, 2011 - 1:45 PM
Gay Marriage NY

Todd Plank of Rochester, N.Y., holds a sign during a marriage equality rally at the Capitol in Albany, N.Y., on Tuesday, June 21, 2011. National advocates and opponents are watching the marriage debate, waiting to see if New York will restart momentum or kill it the way it did two years ago. Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo has made passing gay marriage a key policy initiative in his first year in office. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) โ€” It's a familiar scene with a major twist: New York lawmakers meet behind closed doors in the frantic last days of a six-month legislative session with a big pile of seemingly unconnected issues on the table in front of them.

This year, however, there is intense national focus on one big issue left dangling: gay marriage. The 32 Republicans meeting will decide, maybe as soon as Wednesday, whether to send a bill approving same-sex marriage to the floor for a full vote. Only three Republicans need to vote for it to make New York the sixth state where gay marriage is legal.

Republican leader Dean Skelos said he didn't discuss gay marriage in two private meetings Tuesday with Gov. Andrew Cuomo or other meetings with the Democratic leader of the state Assembly. Tuesday was the last scheduled day of the legislative session, but it appears that legislators will stay one more day and could still take up gay marriage.

What started as an aggressive push last week by Cuomo, a Democrat who made gay marriage one of his main policy initiatives in his first year, has ground to a halt while competing interests vie for the issues dearest to them.

So, extending and possibly expanding rent control for apartment dwellers in New York City, where rents are stratospheric, had been tied to gay marriage. A 2 percent property tax cap statewide was tied to both.

Skelos said Tuesday afternoon that the framework for agreement on rent control and a tax cap had been reached. Those agreements appear to clear the way for gay marriage to be addressed separately as early as Wednesday.

Skelos, a Long Island Republican, holds great sway over which bills make it to the full Senate for a vote. He is opposed to gay marriage but says he'll let his members decide its fate.

Twenty-nine of New York's 30 Democratic senators support the gay marriage bill. Two Republicans, Sens. Roy McDonald and James Alesi, also support the bill, creating a 31-31 tie. Two or three Republicans are undecided on their vote.

Supporters and opponents gathered at the capitol again Tuesday, but there was little of the raucous singing, chanting and jousting that marked Monday's rallies. State troopers were on hand just in case.

New York's vote is critical in the national debate over same-sex marriage, an effort that largely stalled in the same room two years ago when the Senate voted it down. Since then, efforts have failed in New Jersey, Rhode Island and Maryland. Advocates hope a "yes" vote will jumpstart the effort.

Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Iowa and the District of Columbia allow gay marriage. Of them, all but Massachusetts and Washington, D.C., allow at least limited religious exemptions.

Skelos worries that a federal judge could strike down flimsy religious protections in the current proposal if a religious group, such as the Knights of Columbus, is sued for discrimination for refusing to provide its hall for a gay wedding. He wants protections that will allow a religious group to observe its principles without conflicting with a gay marriage law.

There was little progress Monday, even as hundreds of chanting advocates and opponents of same-sex marriage tried to make their case. The key sticking point appears to be how much freedom to grant religious groups who protest gay marriage and refuse to perform services or provide related functions like wedding receptions.

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Associated Press writer Michael Virtanen contributed to this report.