The Freedom To Marry: What's Next After New York?

New York is not the first state to have its legislature end the exclusion of lesbian and gay couples from marriage, but this time is different.

With Friday's vote for families and fairness, the number of Americans living in states with the freedom to marry more than doubled, from 16 million to 35 million.

New York's embrace of the freedom to marry marks the first time that a Republican-led chamber of a legislature -- in this case the state senate -- voted to advance a bill to end marriage discrimination, and Republican senators provided the winning margin.

And New York's legislature becomes the first to pass a marriage bill without taking a detour through the temporary way-station of a civil union or domestic partnership. New York heeded the lesson of Vermont and other states that first experimented with civil unions, and embraced the full freedom to marry after concluding that these half-measures don't fully protect families or fulfill the constitutional command of equality.

Fifteen years ago, only 27 percent of Americans approved of ending discrimination in marriage. But as gays and lesbians have talked with family and friends about why marriage matters, hearts have opened and minds have changed. Today, that number has literally doubled. According to a recent Washington Post poll, and confirmed by five other national polls, more than 52 percent of the public supports the freedom to marry for same-sex couples.

Hitting a majority for marriage was a big milestone in this American journey of inclusion and fairness, but having New York end marriage discrimination is a turning point for the country. The world watches New York, and, as New Yorkers say, if we can make it here, we'll make it anywhere -- but only if the ever-expanding community of people who support the freedom to marry do the work to bring it home nationwide.

What will that look like?

We will secure the freedom to marry in more states. American history teaches that human rights and social justice movements must make gains at the state level, with some states serving as engines to tug the conversation and country forward. In every state (and every country) that has ended the denial of marriage to same-sex couples, support for the freedom to marry has only increased. People see with their own eyes that gays and lesbians in their state who get married share the hope and joy of other couples, and the heartfelt desire to make and strengthen a lifelong commitment to the person they love.

With each state win, we will inspire other states to follow. Republican support -- from Ken Mehlman, the former chair of the Republican National Committee, to Barbara Bush, the daughter of President George W. Bush -- was critical to passing the law through New York's Republican-controlled state senate. Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo was the indispensable champion of the marriage bill, speaking often of the need for New York to live up to history and once again lead the way for the nation. New York's bipartisan triumph for the freedom to marry signals a major shift in the national political calculus for both parties and points the way to more victories.

We will continue to grow the number of Americans who support the freedom to marry. Not only is there now majority support for ending discrimination in marriage, but the freedom to marry is riding a demographic wave. Roughly 60 percent of millennials -- voters under 30, who represent the largest generation ever -- overwhelmingly support marriage rights for loving, committed same-sex couples. Their support ranges across virtually every demographic, including Republicans and even evangelicals. Elected officials looking to the future, let alone history, see voters -- Democratic, independent, and increasingly, Republican -- who want them to stand for the freedom to marry.

And we will tackle and end federal marriage discrimination. Under the so-called "Defense of Marriage Act" stampeded through Congress in 1996 -- before gay couples could marry anywhere in the world --tens of thousands of legally married couples are denied the 1138-plus federal protection and responsibilities triggered by marriage, including Social Security, immigration rights and fair tax treatment.

With court challenges mounting, the Department of Justice concluding that DOMA is indefensible under the Constitution, and the Respect for Marriage Act now pending in Congress to repeal DOMA, history's gaze now falls on our leaders in Washington, D.C. (where couples can legally marry, thanks to a legislative vote last year) to do their part in securing the freedom to marry.

President Obama has stated that his views on marriage are "evolving," and that "gay couples deserve the same legal rights as every other couple in this country." He has much to gain, and very little to lose, by joining the national majority for marriage and standing with the millennials, Democrats and independents who favor the freedom to marry, and the Republicans who have begun to speak with more clarity than he has. It's time now for the president, like all of us in New York celebrating our new statute of liberty, to say, "I do support the freedom to marry."

EVAN WOLFSON is the President of Freedom to Marry, the campaign to win marriage nationwide, and author of Why Marriage Matters: America, Equality, and Gay People's Right to Marry.