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Talks on NY gay marriage bill focus on exceptions

Supporters of gay marriage make signs that read "today" in a hallway at the Capitol in Albany, N.Y., on Wednesday.
Supporters of gay marriage make signs that read "today" in a hallway at the Capitol in Albany, N.Y., on Wednesday. Mike Groll / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

New York's three top political leaders said Wednesday they supported several additional religious exceptions to a gay marriage bill and were in critical negotiations over wording.

Even if the exceptions are approved, however, the Republican conference, most of whose members oppose gay marriage, must send the bill to the Senate floor for a vote. The Democratic-led Assembly has already approved the bill but would need to approve any revised version that might come out of the Senate.

Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Senate Republican leader Dean Skelos and Democratic Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver said that while there was no deal on the religious exceptions, talks were encouraging.

"We are going back and forth on language," Cuomo said late Wednesday. "But we have not hit any obstacles."

Negotiations were expected to continue into Thursday.

Negotiators are trying to include enough protections in the bill so religious groups that oppose gay marriage aren't hit with discrimination lawsuits. Those provisions also are intended not just for the few undecided senators, but to satisfy the entire Republican conference enough to send the bill to the floor.

"It's not just the people who are going to vote 'yes' or who may vote 'yes,'" Cuomo said. "The entire conference is looking at this language and the whole conference wants to make sure that they feel confident that if it comes out, and if it passes, that it protects religion."

The need to get the Republican senators to agree to send the bill to the floor for a vote was a pressure point for some of the hundreds of demonstrators at the Capitol on Wednesday. Signs cropped up threatening Republicans that if they allow the bill to the floor they should face a costly primary even if they ultimately vote against gay marriage.

Conservative Party Chairman Michael Long has also urged Senate Republicans to keep the bill from the floor, where a block of Democrats and a few Republicans could pass it.

Cuomo said he's optimistic his bill will pass in the coming days.

New York's action is being watched closely as a pivotal moment in the national gay rights movement.

Earlier Wednesday, Skelos and Silver tried to minimize their differences over the bill in an optimistic press conference. But the religious protection additions hadn't been printed by Wednesday night, so lawmakers didn't have anything to vote on.

Leaders in the Assembly said they were ready to bring their members back on Thursday to take up the vote. The Democrat-led chamber easily passed a gay marriage bill last week but would have to vote again because of the religious protection changes.

The stronger protection for religious organizations, such as adoption agencies and marriage counselors who oppose gay marriage on principle, is sought by undecided Republican senators who are key to the vote. Currently, the Senate appears to be one vote shy of making New York the sixth state where gay marriage is legal.

Among Democrats in the Senate, 29 of 30 say they'll vote for gay marriage, meaning only three Republicans need to vote for it to pass in the 62-seat chamber. Two have already committed to voting for it, and at least two others are undecided.

Wednesday, Republican senators met behind closed doors to take up other major issues including a property tax cap, New York City rent control and public college tuition increases.

Outside the Senate conference, members of several congregations sang hymns including "Amazing Grace" alternating with "God Bless America" in peaceful demonstrations by those for and against same-sex marriage. As proponents chanted and held signs calling for "Liberty and Justice for All," senators quietly left their closed-door conference late in the morning.

A famous chef and television actress were among the advocates promoting legalization. Restaurateur Mario Batali said he was at the Capitol representing his 3,000 employees, who understand they should be able to make their own decisions on marriage, not the government.

Audra McDonald, who appears on ABC's "Private Practice," said she has many gay and lesbian Broadway friends in committed relationships and thinks there would be "tons" of weddings.

Both said gay marriage would bring an estimated $400 million economic boost for the state and New York City.

Cuomo, who took office this year, has invested considerable energy and political capital in the effort.

A similar measure to legalize same-sex marriage largely stalled two years ago when the state Senate voted it down. Since then, the movement has failed in Maryland, New Jersey and Rhode Island. Advocates hope a "yes" vote in New York will jumpstart the effort.

"I believe the people are entitled to a vote, and let the elected officials stand up and say 'yea' or 'nay,'" Cuomo said. "I believe that's how democracy works."

Two Republicans clearly undecided are Sen. Stephen Saland of the Hudson Valley, one of the Senate's most veteran and respected members, and Sen. Mark Grisanti of Buffalo, a freshman who is part of the GOP youth movement voted into office in the 2010 Republican tide nationwide.

Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Iowa and the District of Columbia allow gay marriage. Of them, all but Massachusetts and Washington, D.C., allow at least limited religious exemptions.

New York's legislative session had been scheduled to end Monday.

Associated Press writer Michael Virtanen contributed to this report.