NY Senate punts on gay marriage - for tonight

Gay marriage supporters and opponents rally in the hallway at the Capitol in Albany, N.Y., Thursday, June 23, 2011.
Associated Press

ALBANY, N.Y. - The fight over legalizing gay marriage in New York got ugly online as the Republican Senate again failed to take up Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo's bill after another marathon session and protests by hundreds of demonstrators.

Senate leader Dean Skelos abruptly ended Thursday's session just before 11 p.m. for the "health of the members,'' who were awaiting the printing of bills not expected until after 4 a.m.

When they return Friday, they still face several complex bills before they can consider making New York the sixth state to legalize same-sex marriage. Democrats weren't happy with the pace.

``This isn't stalling, it's a complete work stoppage by the Senate Republicans,'' said Austin Shafran, spokesman for the Democratic minority that supports gay marriage.

The question in New York is viewed as a pivotal moment in the national gay rights movement that has gained legal marriage status for same-sex couples in Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Iowa and the District of Columbia then recently lost momentum.

Obama stops short of backing same-sex marriage

Meanwhile Thursday, the leader of the state Senate, New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan and at least one other lawmaker said they have been besieged by offensive posts, forcing them to curtail comments.

Dolan has blogged that he loves gay people who want to get married but still ardently opposes gay marriage. The church says Dolan's been one of the targets of cyber abuse and vulgarities prompted the banning of some commenters on the Catholic church's Facebook and Twitter pages.

Senate Republican leader Dean Skelos, who opposes gay marriage, has also closed down the comments on his Facebook page after supporters used vulgarities and posted the home addresses of senators opposed to gay marriage.

Democratic Sen. Diane Savino of Staten Island, who supports gay marriage, said she, too, had had an onslaught of offensive postings by opponents of same-sex marriage.

Skelos said his Republican caucus would meet behind closed doors to decide whether to send Gov. Andrew Cuomo's bill to the floor or kill it. Several amendments have been proposed to better protect religious groups from discrimination lawsuits and to entice Republican senators, most of whom oppose gay marriage, to send the bill for a full vote advocates think they will win.

"It's up to the conference to bring it out (for a full Senate vote),'' Skelos said Thursday after meeting with the governor. "It's going to be a lengthy conference, a thoughtful conference.''

Thursday night, Republican Sen. Greg Ball of Putnam County said he believes the GOP conference will pass the gay marriage bill, but not with his vote. Ball had once been publicly undecided and used that time to push for additional protections for religious groups. "Knowing that marriage equality was likely to pass, I thought it important to force the issue of religious protections,'' Ball said.

But he said not enough protections were being added to the bill.

Debate turns ugly online

The anxiety level appeared to rise on both sides as negotiations dragged toward the end of a second week. It was most keenly observed online. One post used a vulgarity to disparage the Virgin Mary, among other web posts and emails that prompted the New York State Conference of Bishops to ban from its Facebook page some users who accuse Dolan and the church of bigotry. More than a dozen have been banned, said Dennis Poust, spokesman for the New York State Catholic Conference.

"Our unofficial Facebook policy is not to automatically delete comments that disagree with us, but when the comments come into untruths or uncharitable, then we have to delete them,'' Poust said. ``And when it really becomes abusive we have to ban them.

The Senate's Republican majority stopped allowing posts to Skelos' Facebook page this week.

``The vast majority of the comments were fine,'' said Skelos spokesman Scott Reif. ``Some had gotten increasingly over the top.''

The conference is still accepting comments through email and phone calls.

"There were some pretty disgusting things,'' said Savino, who noted the vitriol was greater than 2009 when a Democrat-led Senate defeated an almost identical bill. She said the worst commenters appear to have stopped.

"If you are opposed, I respect that,'' she said. "What I can't tolerate is people using abusive or homophobic behavior aimed at me or my staff.''

In the Capitol building, supporters and opponents have peacefully coexisted with occasional outbursts since last week, singing hymns like ``This Little Light of Mine,'' or ``Amazing Grace.''

"The tension is always high because you have people yelling at you back and forth,'' Tonja Alvis, a gay marriage supporter from Albany, said Thursday. ``It's like a rally at a football game.''

But the two opposing groups, kept segregated by state troopers, largely stayed on opposite sides of the hallways.

"A little calmer than some days,'' said Keith Mills of Esperance, N.Y., who held a hand-written sign reading ``We are Christians and we vote. No gay marriage.''

The Democrat has been using a kind of shuttle diplomacy to privately test proposals for additional exceptions aimed at saving religious groups from discrimination lawsuits if they refuse to recognize gay marriage based on their principles. He's talked to individual senators or small groups of lawmakers privately, breaking down barriers and letting them take his message to others in the Republican caucus.

Of those places where gay marriage is legal, Massachusetts and Washington, D.C., are the only ones that don't allow at least limited religious exemptions.