Following weeks of cautious optimism, years of debate and almost 42 years since the riots at the Stonewall Inn, the Empire State passed the final hurdle to marriage equality at 10:30 p.m. tonight when the New York Senate passed a marriage equality bill on a 33-29 vote.
Sen. Thomas K. Duane
After an afternoon agreement on further expansion of the religious exemptions to the bill, the Assembly – which passed the bill this past week – passed the religious exemption amendments before the Senate even began debate on the bill shortly after 9:30 p.m.
Leading off the debate was Sen. Stephen Saland (R), one of the uncommitted Republicans on the bill, describing the amendments and concluding that ''As our parents told us, always to do the right thing. My intellectual and emotional journey has ended here.''
His ''yes'' vote, reported by Gannett News just before he announced it on the Senate floor, represented the heavily sought 32nd vote – the majority vote in the 62-member body.
Before today, only 31 senators had said they would vote yes, including two Republicans – Sens. Jim Alesi and Roy McDonald.
Later in the debate, a fourth Republican, Sen. Mark Grisanti, joined the other three in announcing that he would vote yes.
Speaking about his faith, he said, however, "I am not here as only a Catholic.'' Talking about the ''research'' he had done on the issue, he concluded, ''I cannot legally come up with an argument against same-sex marriage.''
In announcing his yes vote, Grisanti went on to say, ''I cannot deny a person, a human being, a worker ... the same rights I have with my wife.'' He added that he thought the strong religious exemptions approved in tonight's bill would not be passed in future bills if marriage equality was not approved in this session.
Sen. Ruben Diaz, Sr. (D) – the sole Democrat to oppose the bill – spoke against both the religious exemptions – which were amended into the bill on a 36-26 vote – and the bill itself.
Openly gay Sen. Thomas Duane (D), on the other hand, was the most outspoken supporter of the bill, talking about being bullied and attacked for his sexual orientation, living in a community ravaged by AIDS and fighting in the legislature.
''Civil rights and LGBT rights are part of what I am here to fight for,'' he said, talking about his partner, Louis, and their desire to marry. ''Marriage says that we are a family. Louis and I are a family.''
Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), to whose desk the bill now goes for his signature, praised the decision in a statement, saying, ''New York has finally torn down the barrier that has prevented same-sex couples from exercising the freedom to marry and from receiving the fundamental protections that so many couples and families take for granted.
''With this vote, marriage equality will become a reality in our state, delivering long overdue fairness and legal security to thousands of New Yorkers.''
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), a key LGBT ally in Congress and the lead sponsor of the Respect for Marriage Act – the bill to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act – also applauded the news.
''I am thrilled by today's victorious affirmation of the right of all New Yorkers to marry the person they love. I could not be more pleased that my own state has finally chosen to join the growing group of forward-looking states that have taken a bold, decisive, and just stand on civil rights for gay and lesbian citizens,'' Nadler said in a statement. ''In our nation's third most populous state, thousands of couples will now be able to receive the validation they deserve.''
He noted, however, the limits of the state's action.
''But, of course, the federal government still lags behind. Now more than ever, we must pass the Respect for Marriage Act, my legislation to repeal the discriminatory DOMA, and allow New Yorkers and others who are – or will be – legally married to take part in the full measure of protections and obligations of federal law.''
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), raised the historical place the vote holds while, like Nadler, also pointing to the continued work needed on the federal level before same-sex couples who are married in New York will be legal equals to opposite-sex couples.
''New York has always led the way for equal rights – from leading the suffrage movement, to Abraham Lincoln's remarkable speech opposing slavery at Cooper Union - and we have done it again, she said, noting, ''Marriage under the law is the foundation for strong families. I will continue to help lead the fight in Washington to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act so that all loving and committed marriages in New York are recognized by the federal government.''
Among advocates, Freedom to Marry founder and president Evan Wolfson has one of the longest histories seeking marriage equality, having been working on the issue as far back as his time at Harvard Law School.
In a statement tonight, he said, ''Winning the freedom to marry in New York truly is a transformative moment for committed couples and for our country, a triumph for love and equality under the law.''
Pointing out the ripple effect of having lawmakers in the third largest state in the nation approve marriage equality, Wolfson said, ''With the freedom to marry in New York, the nationwide majority for marriage will swell, as even more people get to see why marriage matters to same-sex couples, that gay couples, like non-gay, treasure the chance to affirm and strengthen their commitment, and that ending marriage discrimination helps families and hurts no one.''
Brian Ellner, the Human Rights Campaign's senior strategist in New York, has been leading the group's efforts in the state. In an HRC news release, he said, ''Governor Cuomo has shown New York and the nation what leadership looks like. The bipartisan nature of the vote is compelling proof that marriage equality is increasingly an issue that unites, not divides. Legislators listened to their constituents and did the right thing.''
Unsurprisingly, Log Cabin Republicans also looked to the four Republicans voting yes, with Log Cabin Republicans of New York State Chairman Gregory T. Angelo saying in an LCR news release, ''We wish to thank our dedicated members for their diligence, persistence and patience – it has been a long time coming, but today Republicans in the New York State Senate stood up for true conservative values: individual liberty, personal freedom and equal rights for all, and we thank them for voting on the right side of history.''
National Gay and Lesbian Task Force executive director Rea Carey pointed to Stonewall – on the weekend of New York City Pride – in the Task Force's news release, saying, ''This vote affirms our common humanity. It means same-sex couples will no longer have to cross state lines to marry.''
''It honors New York's unique history as being the place where the modern gay rights movement sprang to life 42 years ago this month at the Stonewall Inn in New York City — a place where lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people stood up and fought back for their dignity and rightful place in society.''
Or, as Cuomo said in his statement, ''With the world watching, the Legislature, by a bipartisan vote, has said that all New Yorkers are equal under the law.''
The bill will take effect 30 days after he signs it into law.
UPDATE: The New York Times's Danny Hakim reports that the bill was signed at 11:55 p.m. June 24, "so 30 days from Friday, it takes effect."