By CARA MATTHEWS
Gannett Albany Bureau
ALBANY - Gay-rights advocates are hoping that their victory in New York, which will soon become the sixth state to allow same-sex marriage, will provide the momentum they need to secure that right in other states.
The national spotlight has been on New York in recent weeks as a potential bellwether on the controversial issue as gay-rights activists and conservative religious organizations battled to win over lawmakers.
Advocates for same-sex marriage are eyeing votes in Maryland and Oregon and a re-vote next year in Maine, where the proposal failed in a referendum two years ago. Other states that allow gay marriage are Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont.
"New York is one of the beacons around the country and around the world that people look at. So it sends a huge symbolic message," said Marc Solomon, national campaign director for Freedom to Marry, a gay-rights group.
The 33-29 vote Friday followed weeks of deliberations by some senators who had not decided their stance on the issue. The Assembly passed the legislation last week. Gov. Andrew Cuomo -- who made passage of the bill one of his top priorities this session - will sign it.
"When this is signed into law, the population of the United States with marriage equality doubles. That's certain to have ripple effects across the country," said Ross Levi, executive director of the Empire State Pride Agenda.
Had senators in New York voted down or failed to take up the legislation, it would have been a major victory for conservative religious groups and other same-sex marriage opponents.
"New York is one of the last stands, if you will," said the Rev. Jason McGuire, executive director of New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms, an evangelical Christian group.
"New York is really that last big prize that's up in the air," he said before the vote Friday.
Thirty states have constitutional amendments that define marriage as between a man and a woman.
Just like pro-gay marriage activists, opponents of same-sex marriage were out in full force demonstrating at the Capitol in the past few weeks. Signs reading "Marriage Now!" and "'I do' support marriage equality" were side-by-side with ones that said, "Please don't!" and "One man, one woman!"
Recent polls in New York have found that the majority of New Yorkers support same-sex marriage, although opponents dismiss the surveys.
While it was clear there was overwhelming opposition to same-sex marriage legislation in Maryland and Rhode Island, where the measures failed, New York "is a little bit of a unique creature," said Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage.
"Obviously we're very concerned about New York and we're going to put serious resources into fighting the Legislature," he said before Friday's vote.
His group will work to defeat lawmakers who voted yes, Brown said. That's what it did in New Hampshire with lawmakers who supported similar legislation, he said.
Brown and others who oppose same-sex marriage said legislators should let voters decide the issue in a referendum, rather than decide themselves.
"This is a very unique issue that goes to the very core of what voters view as the nature of the family and the nature of the state's relationship to the family. In an issue like this, a free and fair vote of the people is the best way to decide," Brown said.
Historically, opponents of same-sex marriage have said the decision should be up to legislatures and not the courts, said Pace Law School Professor Darren Rosenblum, a legal scholar of lesbian and gay rights. Those who have promoted a referendum are attempting to "forestall marriage equality, which I think even they know will eventually happen," he said.
The fact that Republicans, who hold a slim majority in the Senate, didn't reject same-sex marriage outright and spent time working with Cuomo on a religious carve-out amendment "demonstrates the extent to which marriage equality has become not just normalized but respected as a legitimate civil right," he said.
New York is the first state to approve same-sex marriage withthe help of a legislative chamber controlled by Republicans.
Twenty-nine Democrats voted for the bill and four of the 32 Republicans did, including Sens. Stephen Saland, R-Poughkeepsie and James Alesi, R-Perinton, Monroe County.
There has been more awareness in recent years of the consequences of not treating a same-sex couple the same as a married woman and man, Rosenblum said.
The issue is a little bit more complicated because of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which doesn't recognize same-sex marriages. Lawsuits challenging its legality have been filed in several jurisdictions, he said.
"With regard to that litigation, I think a shift like what is hopefully about to occur in New York is going to be very promising because the more people in the United States who can get married, the harder it's going to be for the federal government to deny them their civil rights," he said before Friday's vote.
President Barack Obama on Thursday spoke to gay leaders in New York City and said it's up to states to decide whether to legalize same-sex marriage. He praised New York's deliberations, but he himself has yet to support same-sex marriage. He has backed only civil unions but has said his position is evolving.
Proponents of gay marriage say that the push in New York, regardless of the outcome, has raised awareness of the issue. Business leaders, including some major Republican donors, have joined the push for marriage equality in New York. And the Capitol has been a regular stop in recent weeks for famous names to lend support, including chef and restaurateur Mario Batali, "Sex and the City" star Cynthia Nixon and New York Rangers star Sean Avery.
Other opponents of same-sex marriage also are gearing up for a fight.
Dennis Poust, spokesman for the New York State Catholic Conference, said his group expects same-sex couples will sue churches to have use of their facilities or to have their marriages recognized, whether for adoption or other services provided by religious organizations.
"We assume there will be litigation probably against us or our ministries in regards to discrimination because of our teachings," he said.
But Poust said churches might file their own lawsuits to ensure the rights between church and state aren't infringed upon. The legislation doesn't require religious groups to solemnize same-sex marriage, but they might have to seek court intervention to ensure their rights are protected, he said.
Last month, Catholic Charities in Illinois sued the state to continue its practice of excluding same-sex couples from its adoption program after the state this year allowed gay couples to enter into civil unions.
But advocates for same-sex marriage in New York say laws are already on the books to prevent discrimination against gay couples in cases of adoption or other services. Also, existing state law protects religious groups from not having to recognize gay couples.
Other states have similar laws. Connecticut's same-sex marriage law, for example, states that no clergy would be required to solemnize same-sex marriage, and it exempts any "qualified church-controlled organization."
New Hampshire's law is more specific, stating that any religious group or non-profit organization tied to one "shall not be required to provide services, accommodations, advantages, facilities, goods, or privileges" to any gay couple.
In the five states that have legalized same-sex marriage, New Hampshire and Vermont did so through legislative action. It was implemented by court orders in Iowa, Massachusetts and Connecticut.
In California, a court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage in 2008, but voters passed a referendum later that year to prohibit it, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. A federal judge ruled last year that the ban violated equal-protection provisions of the U.S. Constitution, and the decision is on appeal.