ALBANY - New York made history last night by becoming the sixth and largest state to legalize gay marriage.
The state Senate passed the bill by a 33-29 margin and Gov. Cuomo quickly signed it five minutes before midnight.
Now, the rush to the altar can begin in 30 days when the law takes effect.
"This state, when it's at its finest, is a beacon for social justice," said Cuomo, who spearheaded the effort. "We reached a new level of social justice this evening."
New York joins Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Iowa, as well as Washington, D.C., in legally recognizing gay marriage.
After the vote tally was announced, visitors to the normally somnolent chambers erupted in a raucous chant of "U.S.A.! U.S.A.!"
It was only two years ago that gay marriage was easily defeated in the then Democrat-controlled Senate with every Republican voting against it.
Yesterday, after days of uncertainty, four Republicans joined 29 Democrats to give the bill one more vote than needed to pass.
Cuomo called the four Republicans - Stephen Saland of Poughkeepsie, Mark Grisanti of Buffalo, Roy McDonald of Saratoga Springs, and James Alesi of Rochester - "people of courage and people of principle."
Heading into the vote, Grisanti and Saland had said they were undecided. During the debate, both spoke of having had traditional upbringings where marriage was considered between a man and a woman.
Both acknowledged they'd be upsetting a lot of people with their votes, particularly Grisanti who only a few weeks ago insisted he would vote against the bill.
Grisanti said as a Catholic he opposed redefining marriage, but as a lawyer he couldn't justify denying gay couples the equal rights to which they are entitled.
"A man can be wiser today than yesterday but there would be no respect for him if he has failed his duty to do the work," Grisanti said.
For gay couples, marriage means more than just swapping rings.
For the first time they will qualify for the same 1,324 state marriage benefits afforded to straight couples. Same-sex couples still won't be eligible for federal marriage benefits because of the Defense of Marriage Act.
The Senate was jam-packed as lawmakers debated the bill.
Gay activists who had decamped for days at the Capitol hugged, cried and cheered after the passage was announced.
Opponents, who for days lined the hallways around the Senate praying, chanting and singing, vowed retribution for GOP senators who voted in favor of the bill.
Going into last night's vote, 31 senators were supporting the gay marriage bill - one shy of the 32 needed for passage.
Republicans agonized over the vote for weeks. Some opposed it on religious or moral grounds while others feared promised Conservative Party backlash could cost the GOP its already razor-thin majority next year.
Divided Republican senators discussed whether to bring the controversial bill to the floor for six hours behind closed doors yesterday, Sen. Kemp Hannon (R-Nassau) said.
Sources said a small group of senators led by Syracuse Republican John DeFrancisco were arguing to bypass a floor vote in favor of a public referendum. In the end, many felt it better to clear the contentious issue off the table before next year's elections.
The decision also came after Cuomo and legislative leaders agreed on language to ensure that religious groups cannot be sued if they refuse to cater to gay couples.
It would also block the state from penalizing, discriminating against or denying benefits to religious groups. They would not be stripped of their tax-exempt status or their property tax breaks.
Even with the protections, the state's Catholic bishops, led by Archbishop Timothy Dolan vehemently opposed passage of a gay marriage bill
"We worry that both marriage and the family will be undermined by this tragic presumption of government," the bishops said in a statement. The Assembly last week passed the bill for the fourth time since 2007.
A drained but happy Assembly bill sponsor Daniel O'Donnell (D-Manhattan), who is gay, is looking ahead.
"A day of rest, the Gay Pride Parade, and then planning a wedding."
EVERYBODY HAS HIDDEN AGENDAS! THIS BILL WAS STUCK THEN OBAMA CAME & GAVE HIS SPEECH ABOUT GAY PEOPLE HAVING THE RIGHT TO MARRY! BUT DOES ANYBODY KNOW, OBAMA HAS THE MOST OPENLY GAY CABINET MEMBERS THAN ANY OTHER PRESIDENT IN HISTORY! JUST SOME THINGS THAT MAKE YOU GO HMMMM! SO WHEN CHURCHES DENY GAY COUPLES TO MARRY ARE THEY GONNA BE SUED FOR WHAT THEY BELIEVE IN?