For the past week, the eyes of the gay rights community have been on Albany, where lawmakers in New York State have been close to finalizing a marriage equality bill. This would make New York the 6th, and easily the largest, state to allow same-sex couples to marry. The state Assembly has already passed the bill; the state Senate needs 32 votes to do so. And 31 Senators have publicly announced their support. Today, one more Senator, a Republican, has privately assured that he would vote for the bill.

A name has not yet been released, but sources close to those with the New York State Republican Conference have confirmed a thirty-second vote has been “secured” for the passage of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo’s Marriage Equality Act.

The New York Senate, nearing the end of the session, has a host of bills to pass, so marriage equality may not come up until late tonight or even tomorrow. But if Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, a Republican and an opponent of marriage equality, gets it to the floor, it apparently has the votes to pass.

In order to get Skelos to bring forward the bill, Governor Andrew Cuomo must allow amendments in the form of “religious protections.” Here’s a closer look at that.

Existing state law prohibits discrimination against people based on their sexual orientation (as well as race and gender) but exempts private organizations and religious organizations. The bill reiterates that churches and private, fraternal organizations like the Knights of Columbus are “distinctly private” and not forced to give facilities related to a same-sex ceremony.

The bill further states that any religious groups, as well as any organization it operates for “charitable or educational purposes” cannot be faulted for any act “calculated by such organization to promote the religious principles for which it is established or maintained.”

Edward Mechmann, an attorney who works for the Catholic Conference, met with Cuomo’s top aides to point out what it sees as problems. The bill’s language only references parts of the human rights law, but doesn’t tie in to the public accommodations law, which mandates any restaurant, hotel or catering hall that isn’t completely private must serve everybody. “Unless you’re given a specific exemption from that, you’re required to comply,” he said.

It looks to me as if religious institutions are looking to carve out a special privilege for themselves here. But the Democratic leadership looks like they may be amenable if it means they can get the marriage equality vote.

If marriage equality hits New York, it opens up the promise of marriage for tens of thousands more gay Americans. Stay tuned…

David Dayen

David Dayen