Senate: More Religious Snags in Gay Marriage Bill

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    NEWSLETTERS

    AP
    Lobbyists gather outside the Senate Chamber during a session of the New York state Senate at the Capitol.

    Gov. Andrew Cuomo held more one-on-one negotiations Friday with Senate Republicans who worry his bill to legalize gay marriage doesn't do enough to protect religious groups and churches that refuse to preside over same-sex weddings and other services.
     
    A third lengthy, closed-door meeting by the GOP majority brought the bill, widely viewed as key to national momentum on the issue, no closer to a floor vote. The Democrat-led Assembly passed the measure Wednesday as expected, and a vote in the Senate had been anticipated this week.

    That action could now be days away, after Senate Republicans didn't even discuss Friday whether to take that action. 

    "There has been no decision — in fact that really was not the discussion — as to whether it will come out yet, who's voting for it, who's voting against it," Majority Leader Dean Skelos said immediately after Friday's two-hour conference.

    The Long Island Republican said senators for and against gay marriage want to make the sure that if the bill gets a floor vote there won't be "unintended consequences to this legislation" — a reference to religious protections.

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    Skelos didn't go into more details but noted that some Catholic adoption agencies closed after a law was passed years ago prohibiting discrimination against gays and lesbians.

    Other Republicans have sought further protections of caterers and others who might object to providing services or a venue for a wedding of a same-sex couple.

    Activists on both sides of the gay-marriage debate are anxiously watching the outcome of the battle in New York, which may end up hinging on the votes of only a handful of Republican senators. New York would become the sixth and largest state where gay marriage is legal.

    Cuomo met throughout the day in his office with undecided Republicans and other influential members of the party, often one on one, sometimes in groups of two or three.

    Catholic Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York said Friday that the bill proposed by Cuomo, a Catholic Democrat, would impinge on religious freedom and on the social services provided by religious groups.

    "We are still working for the defeat of this bill," Dolan told WGDJ-AM in Albany. "We're realistic to know the forces pushing this are very strong; they're well-oiled, they're well-financed ... (but) it's not a done deal."

    Two conservative ministers, the Rev. Norman Macklin of the Empire Baptist Missionary Convention of New York and the Rev. Duane Motley, leader of a conservative Christian group called New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms, said the Senate's continued concern over religious exemptions show the gay marriage bill is in trouble. 

    Motley said nonprofit faith groups not directly connected to a church, such as a marriage counseling service, are concerned their policies will conflict with the measure.

    Cuomo's bill already has some protections for religious groups, and no clergy would be forced to preside over a gay marriage.

    More than 700 clergy and lay leaders working with gay marriage advocates say the bill has adequate protections now.

    "There are some among us who are using religion as a smoke screen to hide their intolerance," those leaders said Friday in a prepared statement. "The governor's bill specifically provides that no clergy, house of worship or denomination would be forced to perform same-sex marriages or make their facilities available to same-sex couples for marriage ceremonies, receptions or other functions." 

    Senate Democrat leader John Sampson of Brooklyn is now accusing the Republican majority of being more concerned with protecting its majority power and conservative voter base than what Sampson calls a civil right.

    "This is what the public wants," said Sampson.
     
    "This vote should come to the floor irrespective of political consequences because I think that is what the concern is at this point and time," Sampson said. "Who do you represent?"

    Republican Sen. John DeFrancisco of Onondaga County said such a political concern is a factor in whether he will vote to bring the bill to the floor, where Democrats and two Republicans — Sens. James Alesi of Monroe County and Roy McDonald of Saratoga County — appear to have brought the issue to within one vote of passage.

    "If you are a member of a team, and you want to decide as a team what the best thing is to do for the conference as a whole, then you should do it as a team," DeFrancisco said.

    Skelos, who opposes gay marriage, has said that Senate Republicans will decide if the bill goes the floor for a vote and that senators are free to vote their consciences, not the Republican line.

    "I can understand anxiety as a true struggle of conscience," said Jason Ganns, 27, an Albany accountant who is gay and lobbying for same-sex marriage. "I don't necessarily understand the political anxiety. It could cost a Republican his or her job, but I don't see the logic of fighting for a job that you are not doing."

    Should the new language get approved, it would need to be wrapped into a version that would then head back to the Assembly for a bench amendment.