Many obstacles still lie ahead for supporters of same-sex marriage, and eventually they will need Congress or the Supreme Court to embrace their goal. For the moment, though, they are jubilantly channeling the lyrics of "New York, New York" after the Empire State became the most populous state to legalize same-sex marriage.
"Now that we've made it here, we'll make it everywhere," said prominent activist Evan Wolfson, who took up the cause of marriage equality as a law student three decades ago.
With a historic vote by its Legislature late Friday, New York became the sixth state to legalize same-sex marriage since Massachusetts led the way, under court order, in 2004.
With the new law, which takes effect after 30 days, the number of Americans in same-sex marriage states more than doubles. New York's population of 19 million surpasses the combined total of Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire and Iowa, plus Washington, D.C., where same-sex marriages are legal.
The outcome — a product of intensive lobbying by the new Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo — will have nationwide repercussions. Activists hope the New York vote will help convince judges and politicians across the country, including a hesitant President Obama, that support of same-sex marriage is now a mainstream viewpoint and a winning political stance.
"New York sends the message that marriage equality across the country is a question of 'when,' not 'if,'" said Fred Sainz, a vice president of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay advocacy group.
Response From Conservatives
The New York bill cleared the Republican-controlled Senate by a 33-29 margin, thanks to crucial support from four Republican senators who joined all but one Democrat in voting yes.
Groups rallying against gay marriage have vowed to unseat the politicians that helped pass it.
The conservative National Organization for Marriage has announced a new campaign to punish Republicans who supported gay marriage and to try to overturn the law.
Dean Skelos voted against gay marriage in New York, but the Family Research Council is furious with him anyway. In a statement, the conservative group said Democrats pushed gay marriage through, but as the Republican Senate majority leader, Skelos is responsible for allowing that to happen.
Skelos told NPR why he decided not to block the bill.
"Because I believe in democracy," he said. "I believe legislators are elected to make their own choices to vote — to vote their constituents, to vote their conscience."
Skelos says it is important that the new law protect people who object to gay marriage from lawsuits — such as churches that don't want to hold gay weddings, or clergy who don't want to perform them.
Gay rights activists have been heaping praise on Cuomo for leading the push for the bill, seizing on an issue that many politicians of both parties have skirted. Yet the Senate vote marked the first time a Republican-controlled legislative chamber in any state has supported same-sex marriage, and several prominent Republican donors contributed to the lobbying campaign on behalf of the bill.
Jim Alesi was one of the four Republican senators who supported the bill — after voting against gay marriage just two years ago in a decision he says was political.
"Even though there are only four Republicans who voted for it, the bill would never have passed if it hadn't been brought to the floor by the Republican majority," he told NPR's Rachel Martin.
Gay Marriage Expands
For those engaged in the marriage debate nationally, recent months have been a political rollercoaster.
Bills to legalize same-sex marriage failed in Maryland and Rhode Island. However, Illinois, Hawaii and Delaware approved civil unions, joining five other states — California, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon and Washington — that provide gay couples with extensive marriage-like rights.
Adding those eight states to the six that allow gay marriage, more than 35 percent of Americans now live in states where gay couples can effectively attain the rights and responsibilities of marriage. Just 11 years ago, no states offered such rights.
For now, gay couples cannot get married in 44 states, and 30 of them have taken the extra step of passing constitutional amendments banning gay marriage. Minnesota's Republican-controlled Legislature has placed such an amendment on the 2012 ballot.
Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, predicts victory for the amendment to ban gay marriage next year in Minnesota, and said this would belie the claims that the same-sex marriage campaign would inevitably prevail nationwide.
"We've won every free, fair vote of the people," Brown said Saturday. "Backroom deals in Albany are not an indication of what people in this country think about marriage."
Obama Asks Activists For Patience
Efforts may surface in some states to repeal the existing marriage bans, but the prospect of dismantling all of them on a state-by-state basis is dim. In Mississippi, for example, a ban won support of 86 percent of the voters in 2004.
Thus, looking long term, gay marriage advocates see nationwide victory coming in one of two ways — either congressional legislation or a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that would require all states to recognize same-sex marriages.
"The way you do that is creating a critical mass of states and a critical mass of public opinion — some combination that will encourage Congress and the Supreme Court," Wolfson said. "By winning New York, we add tremendous energy to the national conversation that grows the majority."
Shorter term, gay rights activists and their allies in Congress would like to repeal the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which denies federal recognition to same-sex marriages. The act is being challenged in several court cases, and Obama ordered his administration in February to stop defending the law on the grounds it is unconstitutional.
Democrats in Congress have introduced a bill to repeal the law, while the Republican leadership in the House has pledged to defend it.
Obama, when elected, said he supported broadening rights for gay couples but opposed legalizing same-sex marriage. More recently, he has said his position is "evolving," and he asked gay activists at a New York City fundraiser Thursday for patience.
NPR's Neda Ulaby contributed to this report, which contains material from The Associated Press.