ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — The fight over legalizing gay marriage in New York got ugly online as the Republican Senate planned to finally consider the bill in closed-door conference Thursday or Friday.
A top ranking Republican, Sen. Thomas Libous of Binghamton, said he expected the Senate to be at the Capitol until at least midnight Thursday taking up several other measures, none so closely watched as the effort to make New York the sixth state where gay marriage is legal.
Meanwhile, the leader of the state Senate, New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan and at least one other lawmaker said they have been besieged by offensive posts, forcing them to curtail comments.
Dolan has blogged that he loves gay people who want to get married but still ardently opposes gay marriage. The church says Dolan's been one of the targets of cyber abuse and vulgarities prompted the banning of some commenters on the Catholic church's Facebook and Twitter pages.
Senate Republican leader Dean Skelos, who opposes gay marriage, has also closed down the comments on his Facebook page after supporters used vulgarities and posted the home addresses of senators opposed to gay marriage.
Democratic Sen. Diane Savino of Staten Island, who supports gay marriage, said she, too, had had an onslaught of offensive postings by opponents of same-sex marriage.
The question in New York is viewed as a pivotal moment in the national gay rights movement. Skelos said his Republican caucus would meet behind closed doors to decide whether to send Gov. Andrew Cuomo's bill to the floor or kill it. Several amendments have been proposed to better protect religious groups from discrimination lawsuits and to entice Republican senators, most of whom oppose gay marriage, to send the bill for a full vote advocates think they will win.
"It's up to the conference to bring it out (for a full Senate vote)," Skelos said Thursday after meeting with the governor. "It's going to be a lengthy conference, a thoughtful conference."
Thursday night, Republican Sen. Greg Ball of Putnam County said he believes the GOP conference will pass the gay marriage bill, but not with his vote. Ball had once been publicly undecided and used that time to push for additional protections for religious groups.
"Knowing that marriage equality was likely to pass, I thought it important to force the issue of religious protections," Ball said.
But he said not enough protections were being added to the bill.
The anxiety level appeared to rise on both sides as negotiations dragged toward the end of a second week. It was most keenly observed online.
One post used a vulgarity to disparage the Virgin Mary, among other web posts and emails that prompted the New York State Conference of Bishops to ban from its Facebook page some users who accuse Dolan and the church of bigotry. More than a dozen have been banned, said Dennis Poust, spokesman for the New York State Catholic Conference.
"Our unofficial Facebook policy is not to automatically delete comments that disagree with us, but when the comments come into untruths or uncharitable, then we have to delete them," Poust said. "And when it really becomes abusive we have to ban them.
"The tension has really reached a fever pitch for some people. ... I'm sure there are certain unstable members of both sides who are prone to excess," Poust said.
The Senate's Republican majority stopped allowing posts to Skelos' Facebook page this week.
"The vast majority of the comments were fine," said Skelos spokesman Scott Reif. "Some had gotten increasingly over the top."
The conference is still accepting comments through email and phone calls.
"There were some pretty disgusting things," said Savino, who noted the vitriol was greater than 2009 when a Democrat-led Senate defeated an almost identical bill. She said the worst commenters appear to have stopped.
"If you are opposed, I respect that," she said. "What I can't tolerate is people using abusive or homophobic behavior aimed at me or my staff."
In the Capitol building, supporters and opponents have peacefully coexisted with occasional outbursts since last week, singing hymns like "This Little Light of Mine," or "Amazing Grace."
"The tension is always high because you have people yelling at you back and forth," Tonja Alvis, a gay marriage supporter from Albany, said Thursday. "It's like a rally at a football game."
But the two opposing groups, kept segregated by state troopers, largely stayed on opposite sides of the hallways.
"A little calmer than some days," said Keith Mills of Esperance, N.Y., who held a hand-written sign reading "We are Christians and we vote. No gay marriage."
Dozens of gay couples were planning to converge on the Capitol to witness what would be a historic vote in New York, a potential bellwether in the national gay rights movement. But for that to happen, Cuomo's considerable political skills will be tested as never before to engineer one of the biggest social changes in a generation.
The Democrat has been using a kind of shuttle diplomacy to privately test proposals for additional religious exceptions within the Senate's Republican majority. He's talked to individual senators or small groups of lawmakers privately, breaking down barriers and letting them take his message to others in the Republican caucus.
The proposed protections are aimed at saving religious groups from discrimination lawsuits if they refuse to recognize gay marriage based on their principles.
"Will the conference allow a vote to be taken, that's the threshold," Cuomo said Wednesday evening. "I'm pro-marriage equality, I'm also pro-First Amendment, I'm pro-church-state separation and I'm pro-religious freedom. So I also have the same concern."
Even if Republicans agree to the religious exemptions, that's no guarantee the bill will pass.
Two Republicans clearly undecided are Sen. Stephen Saland of the Hudson Valley, one of the Senate's most veteran and respected members, and Sen. Mark Grisanti of Buffalo, a freshman who is part of the GOP youth movement voted into office in the 2010 Republican tide nationwide.
Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Iowa and the District of Columbia allow gay marriage. Of them, all but Massachusetts and Washington, D.C., allow at least limited religious exemptions.
Associated Press writers Michael Virtanen and Michael Hill contributed to this report.
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