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Albany halls resound with pros, cons on gay marriage; Republicans tread warily amid Senate negotiations

Hundreds of demonstrators -- chanting, singing, screaming and praying -- filled the hallways of the Capitol on Monday as the State Senate punted again on the question of whether to legalize same-sex marriage in New York.
Members of the clergy on both sides of the issue were joined by advocates who engaged in a mix of civil and heated debates among themselves, as negotiators were unable to agree on whether, or how, to add exemptions to protect religious organizations not wanting to be covered by the wide-ranging legal ramifications of a gay marriage law.

With other states and the Obama administration looking at how the New York debate gets settled this week, Senate Republicans who hold the key to passage of the legislation were warned by opponents of same-sex marriage to proceed carefully.

"The base of the Republican Party is going to be split for years to come if, in fact, it is the Republicans who pass a gay marriage bill," said Maggie Gallagher, chairwoman of the Washington, D.C.-based National Organization for Marriage, which has been fighting initiatives on gay marriage nationwide.

Last week, the Assembly approved the gay marriage legislation with five votes to spare. Five senators flipped their opposition, so the bill is now one vote short of passage in the Senate.

A number of major, unrelated issues remain on the negotiating table as the Legislature tries to end its 2011 session as Senate Republicans keep tight control of the gay marriage issue just a week after two of them broke ranks and announced their support for the legislation.

After a series of negotiations with the Cuomo administration, the Senate's majority leader, Dean G. Skelos, a Long Island Republican, said that there has been no resolution to ensure that religious institutions are protected if, for example, a federal judge knocks out certain religious exemptions -- involving everything from catering halls to adoption services.

"We are working to protect religious [organizations] to make sure that they are solid and they will stand," Skelos said of added exemptions that the Senate wants.

Dozens of state troopers fanned out across the Capitol to try to keep the hallways open, and Senate guards cut off access to the main gathering room outside the chamber. As the building's temperature rose, so, too, did the emotions. At one end, ultra-Orthodox Jews verbally tangled with a Reform rabbis, who asked troopers to arrest the opponents for alleged hate crimes.

At the other end of the floor, people holding signs for and against gay marriage lined up next to each other as guards hustled rank-and-file senators to a closed-door meeting, at least the fourth private meeting held on the topic in the last week.

"Vote yes," chanted one group.

"God says no," chanted the other.

To add a blend to the day, a group of a dozen other protesters, upset over possible state plans to permit hydraulic fracturing of natural gas, had their own mantra: "No fracking way."

For another day, Senate Republicans remained coy on the issue of same-sex marriage.

"Not as of yet. Really," Sen. Mark J. Grisanti, R-Buffalo, said when asked if he had made up his mind about the legislation since morphing from opposed to undecided last week. He is one of several Senate Republicans weighing a "yes" vote.

Some Republicans see the gay marriage issue, promoted as a top agenda item by Democratic Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, as potential political dynamite but also as leverage in the annual practice of Albany linkage -- when nonrelated items, from putting controls on local property tax growth to state university tuition levels, can be advanced as part of legislative trading.

Advocates on both sides of the gay marriage issue played to the state and national reporters and television cameras that spread through the Capitol.

"If this passes, we will have Sodom and Gomorrah legalized," said Ginny Winn, 80, an Albany County woman who joined with one of the many church groups opposing the bill that would make New York the sixth -- and largest -- state to permit gay marriage.

"The Roman Empire fell under gay marriage. Nero was a homosexual," Winn shouted over the singing.

But a rabbi from a gay rights congregation in Manhattan said the opponents are missing the argument. "The vote today is about a civil marriage license, not about religious ceremonies," said Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum of Congregation Beth Simchat Torah.

"What people choose to do in their religious communities is a completely different issue -- It doesn't help religions or this state to mix them up," Kleinbaum said.

The debate on gay marriage has attracted its share of celebrities. Monday's entry -- this time on the opposition side -- was former New York Giants wide receiver David Tyree, whose ball-against-the-helmet catch helped his team win the Super Bowl against the New England Patriots in 2008. He said he would trade that victory for New York's keeping its ban on same-sex marriage.

"Perhaps God orchestrated that play to give me a platform for what I'm doing here today: to urge political leaders all over our nation to reject same-sex marriage and to stand up for traditional marriage," Tyree said.

The sides are still battling over an agreement announced four weeks ago with much fanfare to cap local property tax growth. Skelos said he still wants the law made permanent instead of being passed as a temporary program, for up to about five years, as advocated by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan.

The 2011 legislative session, according to a calendar approved in January, was supposed to end Monday. However, lawmakers said the session might not be over until the end of the week.

e-mail: tprecious@buffnews.com