A bill that would have allowed same-sex marriage was rejected by New York lawmakers, a stunning outcome for advocates in a state that was the site of one of the gay rights movement's defining moments four decades ago, and a huge victory for opponents who said it could influence votes elsewhere.
"It's just a huge win," said Maggie Gallagher, president of the National Organization for Marriage, a nonprofit organization whose stated mission is to protect marriage. "It's going to help cement defeat for gay marriage in New Jersey, and I think it's going to get a whole bunch of politicians in New Hampshire who voted for gay marriage this year pretty nervous when they come up for election."
So far this year New Jersey failed to schedule long-expected votes on bills to legalize gay marriage, Maine voters rejected a measure and California voters rescinded their law. Supporters, however, point to Vermont and New Hampshire, where lawmakers adopted gay marriage bills this year, while the city council in Washington, D.C., is expected to legalize gay marriage next month.
Iowa's Supreme Court also recognized gay marriage this year. Gay marriage was already legal in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Vermont.
Richard Socarides, who was former President Bill Clinton's senior adviser on gay rights issues, called New York "clearly the biggest prize in this effort."
"Not only will it affect a lot of people because New York is a big state," he said, "but symbolically New York is the country's leader in finance, the arts and culture. It's a bellwether for the country."
Across the Hudson River, New Jersey was watching.
"Here in New Jersey, many of the legislators would rather not vote on it," said Gregory Quinlan, of New Jersey Family First, which opposes gay marriage.
He said New York's action underscores that reluctance and bolsters his group's position.
But Steven Goldstein, CEO of Garden State Equality, countered that the demographics of New York and New Jersey are very different.
"If Democrats in New Jersey don't lead the way, as they promised, to pass marriage equality in 2009, there could be a mutiny against the New Jersey Democratic Party the likes of which this state has never seen," he said.
On Wednesday, New York's bill was defeated 38-24 in the Senate led by liberal New York City Democrats holding a single-seat majority. It was the last hurdle for passage for the measure passed three times by the Democrat-led Assembly and strongly pushed by Democratic Gov. David Paterson.
Gallagher said she never expected such a lopsided margin. She said the supporters of the bill hurt their cause by equating opponents of gay marriage to slave owners and Nazis.
"The gay marriage movement usually looks very smart," she said. "Now it looks flat-footed."
Evan Wolfan, director of the national gay rights group Freedom to Marry, said the vote stung. He and other national advocates blamed in part the fractured dynamics of the New York Senate, where Democrats won a slim majority this year after a half-century of Republican control, only to face defections from its ranks and a Republican-dominated coup that gridlocked the chamber this summer.
The Senate's Republicans who were expected to cross the aisle to support the measure had a scare put into them in November. The state's Conservative Party reasserted its power in GOP politics when the Conservative candidate in a special election for an upstate congressional seat attracted so much support he forced a more moderate Republican to end her campaign.
But advocates say there were victories in the loss and New York — site of the 1969 Stonewall Inn riots, considered the birth of the modern gay rights movement — may have provided a model for success.
The "cause of inclusion" has gained, said Wolfan.
"Most striking was the eloquence and the passion and the details of what people had to say in this very personal and rich way," said Wolfan, who like thousands nationwide watched the Senate's webcast of the more than two-hour debate.
Democratic Sen. Liz Krueger, of Manhattan, talked about her grandparents who escaped discrimination against Jews and were steeped in religion.
"My religion, I believe, teaches me I must vote yes today," she said.
Sen. Eric Adams, a Brooklyn Democrat and black civil rights activist, said gays are now in the position of the Irish, Italians, blacks and other oppressed groups.
"I am hoping New York state comes out of the closet and understands that all Americans deserve the right to marry who they love," Adams said. "This is about love ... we have no right to deny that."
During debate, Sen. Ruben Diaz, a conservative minister from the Bronx, led the mostly Republican opposition.