Opponents of Marriage Equality Confident of Defeating Last-Minute Push

This year, LGBT advocates in New York had ample cause to be hopeful. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, brimming with political capital, declared same-sex marriage a top priority for his administration and appeared far more adept at the art of legislative wrangling than his troubled predecessor, David Paterson. A cohort of deep-pocketed Republican donors and advocates, led by George W. Bush’s recently-out-of-the-closet campaign manager Ken Mehlman, seemed poised to shake up the traditional partisan breakdown by winning over some moderate GOP legislators. Polling data has consistently shown that a majority of New Yorkers, and now even a majority of Americans, favor marriage equality.

And indeed, rumors leaking into the press today suggest victory may be within reach, though advocates won’t rest until the votes are in. Conservative religious groups, meanwhile, who’ve spent months imploring lawmakers not to capitulate in the face of mounting public pressure, are cautiously confident that their efforts have been successful.

Taking the Gospel to the Legislature

Rev. Jason McGuire, the executive director of New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms, who oversees a loosely organized interfaith effort to oppose same-sex marriage, dismisses the notion that there has been any consequential movement among Republicans as “a puff piece for the media.”

“In my conversations with senators,” he said, “I’m just not getting the impression that it has been that big of a factor. If Republicans want to retain the majority and be back here in Albany, they have to remember their base.”

McGuire, a fixture of the state capitol building, routinely holds prayer breakfasts, Bible studies, and other outreach events for lawmakers. “I use lobbying as a platform to take the gospel to the legislature,” he told me. McGuire views the united front put on by Gov. Cuomo, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and other New York political figures as little more than the product of a cold political calculus. “I don’t think he’s as truly committed to the issue as perhaps he’s portrayed,” McGuire says of Cuomo. “The bottom line is, he came from a very difficult budget session and acted like a conservative in many ways—that did not please his base. So the only thing he sees right now that he can do to win back his liberal-left base is same-sex marriage.”

The strategy for McGuire at this late hour is to simply “run out the clock”—emphasize that other items on the governor’s agenda, like an ethics overhaul and property tax relief, are more important to New Yorkers than same-sex marriage. But some of his allies are taking a more confrontational stance. Sen. Reuben Diaz, a Pentecostal minister and the legislature’s most brazenly vocal opponent of marriage equality, held a provocative rally on May 15 in the Bronx, where he was joined by National Organization for Marriage’s Brian Brown.

The National Organization for Marriage (NOM) has purchased at least a half million dollars worth of television ads (one of which has been declared false by the non-partisan organization Politifact) and pledges to spend $1.5 million to defeat legislators who vote for the bill. Dennis Poust, a lobbyist with the New York Catholic Conference, says the Archdiocese of New York has no formal relationship with the NOM. (In Maine, the initiative campaign that resulted in repeal of marriage equality legislation was led by the Church and funded primarily by NOM and Catholic organizations.) Despite being led by Catholics, Poust said, NOM operates largely independently of the Church. “We’ve spoken to them; filled them in on the situation when it began to heat up,” he said. “They’ve gotten involved on their own.”

In contrast with NOM’s public displays of fervor, the Catholic Conference relies more on its personnel’s individual relationships with legislators as a means of advocacy. No emotional rallies, no massive advertising buys, and no protracted fundraising pushes for specific political initiatives. “We can’t compete with the other side financially,” Poust said. “And we don’t try to.”

But New York’s high-profile Archbishop, US Conference of Catholic Bishops President Timothy Dolan, has been unafraid to publicly associate with NOM. Heading into this final week, Dolan and Diaz were scheduled to record an interview with NOM’s Maggie Gallagher for broadcast on satellite radio. Diaz told me Dolan’s impassioned involvement this year was evidence that organized religious opposition has not wavered since 2009, when a same-sex marriage bill failed by an unexpectedly large margin. “He issued a statement that is very, very powerful,” Diaz said. “Two years ago they didn’t do that.”

“To uphold that traditional definition, to strengthen it, and to defend it is not a posture of bigotry or bullying,” Archbishop Dolan wrote in a May 19 blog post. “Nor is it a denial of the ‘right’ of anybody. To tamper with that definition, or to engage in some Orwellian social engineering about the nature and purpose of marriage, is perilous to all of us.”

Dov Hikind is Insulted

Factions of New York’s Orthodox Jewry have also been monitoring the legislative jostling closely. On May 23, six organizations issued a joint position statement exhorting lawmakers to uphold traditional marriage. Among the signatories was Agudath Israel of America, an umbrella organization for ultra-Orthodox groups, both Hasidic and non-Hasidic, who share a “singular belief in the Torah as the primary source of their religious values,” according to Rabbi Shmuel Lefkowitz, its chief officer for governmental affairs.

“On the issue of legalizing same-sex marriage,” the statement reads,

“the Orthodox Jewish world speaks with one voice, loud and clear: We oppose the redefinition of the bedrock relationship of the human family. The Torah, which forbids homosexual activity, sanctions only the union of a man and a woman in matrimony.”

Lefkowitz believes that same-sex marriage lacks the requisite momentum for passage. “If I believed the votes were there, I’d put more effort into it,” he says. “I believe this is under control.”

Religious opponents routinely reference the shocking level of vitriol they say they’ve encountered for their piety; for remaining observant of what they see as thousands-year-old beliefs. Dov Hikind, a Brooklyn assemblyman who represents one of the largest communities of Orthodox Jews outside of Israel, told me,

“I think more than ever before—and if we vote on it in the assembly, this is what I’m going to speak about—I sort of resent the fact that if you’re for human rights, civil rights, morality, then you gotta be for gay marriage. You know, that’s insulting to me. And it should be to a lot of New Yorkers.”

“They’re throwing everything, including the kitchen sink, in order to get people to vote for this,” Hikind said. “Lady Gaga thinks I should vote for gay marriage? It’s like the world turned upside down.”