Friday, June 24th 2011, 10:42 PM
Senators passed the bill 33 to 29 as the normally somnolent chambers erupted in a raucous chant of "USA! USA!"
"As I have said many times, this is a very difficult issue and it will be a vote of conscience for every member of the Senate," said GOP Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Nassau).
"I'm verklempt," said a nervously optimistic Assemblyman Matthew Titone (D-S.I), one of five openly gay state lawmakers prior to the vote. "I'm still in a state of disbelief."
The Assembly passed the bill last week for the fourth time since 2007.
It was only two years ago that gay marriage was easily defeated in the then Democrat-controlled Senate. Now, the rush to the altar could begin 30 days after Gov. Cuomo, who made gay marriage a priority, signs the bill.
For gay couples, marriage means more than just swapping rings.
For the first time they qualify for the same 1,324 state marriage benefits afforded to straight couples.
Same-sex couples are not eligible for federal marriage benefits because of the Defense of Marriage Act.
Advocates on both sides of the issue have for days lined the hallways around the Senate praying, chanting and singing.
"This is one of the basic steps toward being considered first-class citizens," said Erik Ross, 30, a gay student from Albany.
Opponents vowed political retribution for GOP senators who voted in favor of the bill.
Going into last night's vote, 31 senators, including two Republicans, were supporting the gay marriage bill - one shy of the 32 needed for passage.
All eyes were on a small group of undecided senators, particularly Stephen Saland (R-Poughkeepsie), whose wife - who is viewed as sympathetic to the cause - came to the Capitol, giving supporters hope.
Republicans agonized over the vote for weeks. Some opposed it on religious or moral grounds while others feared promised Conservative Party backlash could cost the GOP its already razor-thin majority next year.
Divided Republican senators discussed whether to bring the controversial bill to the floor for six hours behind closed doors yesterday, Sen. Kemp Hannon (R-Nassau) said.
In the end, many felt it better to clear the contentious issue off the table before next year's elections.
The decision also came after Cuomo and legislative leaders agreed on language to ensure that religious groups cannot be sued if they refuse to cater to gay couples.
It would also block the state from penalizing, discriminating against or denying benefits to religious groups. They would not be stripped of their tax-exempt status or their property tax breaks.
Even with the protections, the state's Catholic bishops, led by Archbishop Timothy Dolan vehemently opposed passage of a gay marriage bill, calling it "bad for society."
"Marriage has always been, is now, and always will be the union of one man and one woman in a lifelong, life-giving union," the bishops said in a statement. "Government does not have the authority to change this most basic of truths."
Passage of gay marriage was a huge political victory for Cuomo.
The freshman governor traveled the state trying to rally support.
He brought the major gay lobby groups together into a unified coalition - and coordinated their efforts.
And the Democrat repeatedly met with reticent GOP senators trying to allay their fears and worked personally with them on the religious exemption language.