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Change of heart gives marriage equality a better chance

June 13, 2011
The push to allow same-sex couples to marry took a huge step forward Monday when the first Republican Senator stepped out to support the legislation, only hours after Senate Democrats announced all but one member of the conference will vote "yes" if a bill hits the floor.

Sen. James Alesi, R-Perinton, told reporters following an afternoon meeting with Gov. Andrew Cuomo that he will support a marriage equality bill so long as protections for religious institutions are included.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announces that 29 of the 30 Democrats in the Senate are backing a same-sex marriage bill. That leaves its fate in the hands of Republican senators. A vote is expetced this week.
"If the bill comes out in a way that does not force churches to do something that the churches don't want to do, then this becomes a matter of equality for people that are sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, and deserve the same freedom and same equality in this great country and in the state of New York that each and every one of us enjoys in our every day life," said Alesi, backed by Ross Levi of the Empire Pride Agenda, Brian Ellner of the Human Rights Campaign and Sen. Thomas Duane, D-Chelsea, the Senate's only openly gay man and marriage equality point man.

Cuomo said at a press conference before the meeting he would consult with advocates on whether to put a bill forward. During Alesi's session with reporters after the meeting, Levi announced a bill would be sent up to the Senate.

"The member organizations of New Yorkers United for Marriage along with our amazing elected leaders met with the governor and lieutenant governor and his staff," said Levi. "We have unanimously agreed and recommended to the governor that he do indeed introduce a marriage equality bill and let that come to the Legislature."

Bill language is expected "shortly," according to Levi.

Right before the closed-door meeting, Cuomo and Senate Minority Leader John Sampson held a press conference to announce three previously undeclared Democrats — Shirley Huntley and Joseph Addabbo of Queens, and Carl Kruger of Brooklyn — have pledged their support for the bill. Save the Rev. Sen. Ruben Diaz, D-Bronx, a Pentecostal minister, every Senate Democrat has now pledged support for marriage equality.

With Alesi, that makes 30 "yes" votes, two short of the majority 32 necessary for passage. Two more GOP "yes" votes would be needed to pass Cuomo's forthcoming bill. Alesi's vote, which will come first due to alphabetical order, is seen as an indicator of whether the conference will break the party line they stuck to in 2009.

"If my vote creates some leadership momentum for some of my colleagues then I welcome that and invite them to come along," said Alesi. "But in their hearts if they can't support this, or if politically in their district they can't survive, then they make their own decisions based on that. And I will absolutely not judge them on any vote they take against this."

Addabbo and Huntley said their support is based on constituents polling, which both explained had different results from 2009.

"As of Friday, 6,015 people have weighed in on this issue. And in the end, 4,839 people wanted me to vote yes. So in the end, that is my vote," said Addabbo. "To represent the people of the 15th District which is what I said I would do when I raised my right hand and took that oath."

"In 2009, I took a survey and the survey came back and I voted no. I took my own survey again and I can tell you that the numbers have changed: it was 60-40," said Huntley. "So based on those numbers and such a large number of constituents in favor of marriage equality, that is the reason I decided to vote [yes]."

For his part, Kruger said taking a poll or a "scientific sample" was not necessary for him. Instead, personal lobbying made all the difference.

"No one was more succinct in delivering that message than my good friend and partner in government, Tom Duane. And over these last months what he did in a very clear and intelligent way, was point out the difference between right and wrong," said Kruger.

"I believe today this is an evolutionary process. What we're about to do is redefine what the American family is, and that's a good thing," added Kruger. "Because as the world around us evolves and changes, so do we have to change with it."

The governor said he felt there would be enough support for passage "if the Republican conference takes up the bill and actually votes on the bill."

"I believe the votes will be there for marriage equality if the vote happens. I've had enough conversations with enough legislators," said Cuomo. "I believe the votes are there."

Levi agreed with the governor.

"We continue to think the environment is strong. We think that the momentum that has built up to this point continues to grow," said Levi. "The union leaders, the labor leaders, the business leaders, the religious leaders and the 60 percent of New Yorkers that are on our side, we think, puts us in a very strong position."

Scott Reif, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, said any decision on whether to put a potential bill from Cuomo to a floor vote remains subject to conference discussions that will occur Tuesday or Wednesday. Reif said the conference has not been polled on the issue, but reiterated the Majority Leader's position that members would be allowed to exercise their conscience and not restricted to a party line vote.

Cuomo warned that the battle is not finished, saying "until you're over the goal line, you're nowhere."

Alesi explained his turnaround was not so much a change of heart as it was a change of political climate.

"My vote two years ago was anguishing. It was a political vote and we live in a political world. In some personal relationships I've apologized for letting people down, but I was supporting a conference vote that I thought at the time, politically, was necessary when we were in the minority," said the senator. "We're not in the minority any longer. My leader, I think, has said that he will allow conference to vote its will on this to the extent that we see a bill that takes into consideration the concerns of religious groups and churches that they will not be forced to perform weddings that they can not do, then I will be comfortable with the bill."

Another key "undecided" Republican is freshman Sen. Greg Ball, R-Paterson, has taken a broader approach to religious protections than Alesi, saying he wants to ensure the bill language protects religious institutions from having to host same-sex receptions or functions.

"I think it redoubles the underlying point that the governor and those who support marriage equality need to pay respect to the need for real religious carve-outs, and it was unfortunate to hear earlier today the governor dismiss the need for those same carve-outs. So there is a delicate balance that needs to be addressed," said Ball. "If those carve-outs are not there I absolutely can not support it, and I still need to see the language."

Exact bill language has yet to be determined, but at least for Alesi, the religious protections in the 2009 bill would be sufficient. Neither Cuomo nor Levi seemed eager to bolster religious protections, with Cuomo sternly telling a reporter "I don't know what you're talking about" when asked whether accommodations for those holding Ball's position would be considered.

"We know that the language is already there in the bill, and we are looking forward to the governor's staff introducing their bill for this year shortly," said Lev

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