Protestors on both sides of same-sex marriage debate at Albany Capitol on Friday
By JOSEPH SPECTOR and JON CAMPBELL
Gannett Albany Bureau
ALBANY -- The state Senate gave final approval Friday night to legalize same-sex marriage, making New York the sixth and largest state in the nation to allow gay couples to marry.
The Senate passed the bill 33-29, with four Republicans voting yes. The bill needed 32 votes for passage.
Same-sex couples hugged and cheered in the Senate gallery as the vote was read after an hour and a half debate.
"I love you," one woman yelled down to senators after the vote was cast.
After weeks of uncertainty over whether the Republican-led Senate would vote on the controversial issue, the vote was assured just moments before deliberations started.
Sen. Stephen Saland, R-Poughkeepsie, released a statement to Gannett's Albany Bureau that he would vote yes, making him the 32nd vote.
"Struggling with my traditionalist view of marriage and my deep rooted values to treat all people with respect and as equals, I believe after much deliberation, I am doing the right thing in voting to support marriage equality," Saland said.
Last week, two Republicans senators said they would vote yes -- Sens. Jim Alesi of Perinton, Monroe County, and Roy McDonald of Saratoga. They joined 29 Democrats in support of the measure.
The final vote came from Sen. Mark Grisanti, R-Buffalo. The Democratic-led Assembly passed the bill last week.
Grisanti, who once told local ministers he was "inalterable opposed" to same-sex marriage, gave a detailed speech, explaining the reasons for his reversal. Below are portions of it:
GRISANTI: "I know with this vote, many people who voted for me will question my integrity a short time ago. I'll tell you, though, that I have studied this issue. From those that know me, they know that I have struggled with it. To those whose support I may lose, please know that in the past what I was telling you, and what I believed at the time was the truth. But by doing the research, and ultimately by doing what I believe to be the right thing, to me shows integrity. I would not respect myself, if I didn't do the research and have an open mind, and make a decision - an informed decision - based on the information before me. A man can be wiser today than yesterday, but there will be no respect for the man if he has failed in his duty to do the work... I cannot deny a person, a human being, a taxpayer, a worker, and people of my district and across the state, the State of New York, and those people who make it the great state that it is, the same rights that I have with my wife."
"You rock!" a woman said to Alesi as he left the Senate chambers.
Earlier in the day, Senate Republicans agreed to put the bill on the floor.
"For probably about a year, I've said if the conference felt that this bill should come out for a vote, that it would be a vote of conscience and that's what I'm doing," said Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, R-Nassau County.
The bill had been one vote shy of the 32 votes needed to pass the measure in the Senate.
But when the vote was scheduled to be held Friday, conservative groups were already conceding defeat after vehemently fighting against the bill.
Gay-rights advocates and opponents filled the Capitol all week imploring senators to support their side.
"It appears to me that we're not going to carry the day," said state Conservative Party chairman Michael Long. "From my speculation and what I'm being told, they've got the 32nd vote, and they may have one or two more."
The positive vote was a huge victory for gay-rights advocates across the country. The Senate rejected a same-sex marriage vote in 2009, but it has repeatedly passed the Assembly.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has been a major advocate for the measure since taking office in January, and he slowly built support among undecided Republican and Democratic senators.
After the vote, Cuomo walked into the Senate chambers to thank senators for their vote.
"The members of the conference were very passionate about their feelings," said Sen. Thomas Libous, R-Binghamton, who opposes the bill.
The bill would become law 30 days after Cuomo signs it.
The vote was planned after lawmakers passed a series of other major bills.
The Legislature passed an increase for in-state tuition at the State University of New York by 30 percent over five years. Another bill that passed would cap property taxes at 2 percent or the rate of inflation, revamp the state's rent laws, and provide about $125 million in mandate relief to local governments and school districts.
New York is among the highest taxed states in the country, and Cuomo made a tax cap a hallmark of his administration.
"Finally, taxpayers around the state of New York will get the relief they deserve," said Sen. Jeff Klein, D-Bronx, who represents parts of Westchester County, which has the highest property taxes in the country.
The state's largest cities, including Rochester, Yonkers and Buffalo, would be exempt from the cap. The Legislature would set up a Mandate Relief Council that would review and recommend changes to the Legislature on costs passed down by the state to local governments.
But those bills were trumped by the same-sex marriage vote, which has garnered national attention. On Thursday, President Obama applauded New York's deliberations, even though he himself has not endorsed same-sex marriage.
Some Republicans wanted stronger language to protect religious groups if the bill became law. And Cuomo worked with Saland and other senators to introduce expanded regulations to ensure religious groups and not-profits associated with them would be protected.
The bill also ensures that state and local governments couldn't penalize organizations that don't want to recognize gay couples, essentially ensuring that state aid or state licenses couldn't be revoked as a result.
Saland said on the Senate floor that he was comfortable with the changes. He smiled after he vote was held.
A coalition of gay-rights groups said the amendment was acceptable.
"Love and fairness wins the day for all New Yorkers and our families," said Ross Levi, executive director of Empire State Pride Agenda.
"Today is a historic day and a victory for equality and justice - it is the culmination of many years of work by the Pride Agenda and others across the state."