Gov. David Paterson announced plans Thursday to legalize same-sex marriage in New York, comparing the effort to the fight for the abolition of slavery.
Paterson, whose job approval rating has plunged below 30 percent, is making a political gamble that he can ride the momentum of other states that have recently allowed the practice, and it's unclear how the legislation will play in New York.
The proposal is the same bill the Democrat-controlled state Assembly passed in 2007 before it died in the Senate, where the Republican majority kept it from going to a vote. Democrats now control the Senate, but opponents are vowing to make sure this one fails, as well.
Gay marriage is a crucial issue of equal rights in America that cannot be ignored, Paterson said. He was joined Mayor Michael Bloomberg, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and other elected officials, as well as gay rights advocates and his wife, Michelle.
"For too long, gay and lesbian New Yorkers - we have pretended they have the same rights as their neighbors and friends. That is not the case. All have been the victims of what is a legal system that has systematically discriminated against them."
Paterson, who is black, framed the issue in sweeping terms, invoking Frederick Douglass and Harriet Beecher Stowe and drawing a parallel between the fight to eliminate slavery in the 1800s to the current effort to allow gay marriage.
"Rights should not be stifled by fear," Paterson said. "What we should understand is that silence should not be a response to injustice. And that if we take not action, we will surely lose."
Gay and lesbian couples are denied as many as 1,324 civil protections - such as health care and pension rights - because they cannot marry, Paterson said.
Quinn, who is openly lesbian, dared anyone to "tell me I deserve less" than the right to marry her partner.
"Look me in the eye and tell me that Kim and I aren't a family, that we don't struggle every day, that we don't pay taxes, that we don't work every day in this city. No one can look me or her in the eye and tell us that, because it is not true."
At the same time Paterson was announcing his proposal, Sen. Ruben Diaz of the Bronx, also a Democrat but an opponent of same-sex marriage, met with religious leaders to discuss how to block the bill.
Diaz, an evangelical pastor, said his meeting in the Bronx was to inform Hispanics, Catholics, evangelicals and others opposed to same-sex marriage of their options to prevent the bill's passage.
Diaz said it was disrespectful of Paterson to introduce the legislation in the same week that Catholics celebrated the installation of New York City Archbishop Timothy Dolan.
Paterson attended the ceremony Wednesday at St. Patrick's Cathedral.
"I think it's a laugh in the face of the new archbishop," Diaz said Thursday before the start of his meeting. "The Jews just finished their holy week. The Catholics just received the new archbishop. The evangelical Christians just celebrated Good Friday and resurrection. He comes out to do this at this time? It's a challenge the governor is sending to every religious person in New York and the time for us has come for us to accept the challenge."
Paterson defended the timing of his announcement and brushed off suggestions that he was deflecting attention from the state's financial troubles, saying he has supported same-sex marriage publicly since 1994.
"I haven't in any way changed my point of view," he said. "We stand to tell the world we want marriage equality in New York state."
Paterson noted he was introducing the proposal with "the winds at our back," referring to the recent approval of same-sex marriage in Iowa and Vermont.
New York Democrats gained a 32-30 majority in November's elections. Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith, who did not attend Thursday's announcement, supports the measure but has said he doesn't believe there are enough votes to pass it.
A Quinnipiac University poll this month showed that 41 percent of New York voters backed legalized same-sex marriage; that 33 percent favored civil unions; and that 19 percent wanted no legal recognition for such couples.
In March, a Marist College poll showed Paterson's job approval rating was 26 percent, down from 46 percent in January and 57 percent in October.