New York's historic vote to legalize same-sex marriage could be a tipping point for a national movement to allow gays and lesbians to wed, advocates and opponents said Saturday, as the seesawing battle on the issue moves to other states.
"This vote [Friday] will send a message across the country," Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who made the bill's passage a signature issue, said Saturday morning. "It brings it to a different plane. That's the power and the beauty of New York. Other states look to New York for direction."
Maryland, Rhode Island and New Jersey -- all blue states with significant gay populations -- are seen as the next battlegrounds, gay marriage advocates said. Those fights are part of a three-pronged effort to convince state legislatures, the public and the courts to give gay couples the right to marry, said Evan Wolfson, president of Manhattan-based Freedom to Marry.
But traditional marriage advocates, including the Catholic Church, said they would renew efforts to turn the tide. "Our society must regain what it appears to have lost -- a true understanding of the meaning and the place of marriage, as revealed by God, grounded in nature, and respected by America's foundational principles," said Archbishop of New York Timothy F. Dolan.
Cuomo signed the legislation into law at 11:55 p.m. Friday after a 33-29 Senate vote whose outcome was in doubt until the end. Four Republicans joined 29 Democrats after tense negotiations for hours in the GOP majority about whether to even allow the measure a vote. The Assembly passed the bill as expected earlier.
A crucial part of the victory, state legislators said, were last-minute changes to protect religious institutions from legal action if they refuse to wed or cater to same-sex couples. The law goes into effect July 24, allowing gays and lesbians to go to their town or city clerk's office and get a marriage license after paying a $40 fee, just like heterosexual couples.
Gay married couples would still be prohibited from filing joint federal tax returns under the Defense of Marriage Act. They could file joint state tax returns and enjoy all the benefits of state inheritance and health laws.
As New York became the sixth and most populous state to legalize gay marriage, celebrations broke out across the state and country Saturday. In Greenwich Village, crowds gathered under the rainbow-colored banners of the Stonewall Inn, a seminal location for the gay rights movement.
Brian Ellner, chief of the Human Rights Campaign's drive to legalize gay marriage in New York, called New York's vote "the shot heard round the world."
"This is going to provide wind to the movement around the nation," he said. "It's seismic."
The Conservative Party of New York, whose ballot line provided the margin of GOP victory in several races in 2010, said it will never again endorse the four Republicans who bucked pledges to oppose gay marriage.
"The voters of the state of New York, especially Nassau and Suffolk and upstate New York, are going to really look at the Republican Party as not defenders of traditional values," said Conservative Party chairman Michael Long.
All nine Long Island GOP senators voted against the measure. Sen. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) said Republicans who supported the bill would "have to work very hard to convince their base and others that they're doing everything in their power to fight for them."
But Cuomo, a Democrat with 60 percent and higher approval ratings, personally worked to convince legislators they could vote yes without fear.
"I told them I think this going to be a good thing politically," Cuomo said. "I believe they showed themselves to be people of courage and people of principle."
The New York vote comes in the midst of a fluctuating battle on the issue. Advocates suffered a string of defeats beginning in 2004 with a series of state referendums banning gay marriage, which is not legal in 44 states and specifically outlawed by 30 state constitutions.
But gay marriage advocates say public opinion has swelled in their favor since then. According to Gallup, support for gay marriage has increased from 42 percent to 53 percent nationally. In New York, a Quinnipiac University poll this year showed 58 percent approved, up from 51 percent in 2009.
In what advocates called the largest gay rights field campaign ever, New York senate offices were flooded with mail and calls from constituents to remind them of that support.
"New York did well this time because there was that super majority of public support," said Kevin Nix, a Human Rights Campaign spokesman.
With Bart Jones, Emily Ngo, Ted Phillips and Yancey Roy