By Jill Colvin
COOPER UNION — Mayor Michael Bloomberg Thursday warned lawmakers who oppose marriage equality that they will be harshly judged by history.
In what was touted as a "major address on the urgent need for marriage equality," the mayor described the fight for same-sex marriage as a great civil rights issue of our time.
"In our democracy, near equality is no equality. Government either treats everyone the same, or it doesn’t. And right now, it doesn’t," the mayor told supporters at Cooper Union, a week after traveling to Albany to try to convince Republican lawmakers to support the cause.
He warned lawmakers that those who block the measure will long be remembered as opponents of civil rights.
"The question for every New York State lawmaker is: Do you want to be remembered as a leader on civil rights? Or an obstructionist?” he asked.
"On matters of freedom and equality, history has not remembered obstructionists kindly. Not on abolition. Not on women's suffrage. Not on workers' rights. Not on civil rights. And it will be no different on marriage rights," he said.
Bloomberg said that New York's unique history as the birthplace of the gay rights' movement makes it especially critical to be a leader in the fight.
"We have always led the charge for freedom — and we have always led by example," he said.
But he argued that status could be jeopardized by opponents of gay marriage equality.
"We are the freest city in the freest country in the world — but freedom is not frozen in time," he said.
Bloomberg echoed Martin Luther King Jr., arguing that the arc of American history has always moved toward freedom.
"At our founding, African-Americans were held in bondage. Catholics in New York could not hold office. Those without property could not vote. Women could not vote or hold office. And homosexuality was, in some places, a crime punishable by death," he said.
"One by one, over many long years, the legal prohibitions to freedom and equality were overcome," he said.
He said that, after years of fighting for legitimacy, "there is no doubt that we have passed the tipping point" when it comes to gay marriage.
"This is our time to stand up for equality. This is our time to conquer the next frontier of freedom," he said.
Bloomberg also tried to appeal to conservatives, arguing that opening the door to gay marriage makes good business sense and that the government should not be intruding into people’s personal lives.
"It’s just none of government’s business who you love," he said.
He also broke with Gov. Andrew Cuomo, calling again for an immediate vote on a marriage equality bill, arguing that voters have a right to know where their elected officials stand.
"We deserve a vote not next year, or after the 2012 elections, but in this legislative session," he said.
Cuomo has pledged his support for gay marriage and vowed to pass the bill. But the governor has said he wants to wait until he's sure he has enough votes to get the measure passed.
A bill that would have legalized same-sex marriage has passed the State Assembly three times, but didn't come up for vote in the Senate until July 2010, when it was rejected 38-24.
Ahead of the speech, about a dozen LGBT activists gathered outside of Cooper Union to criticize the mayor for suddenly upping his push for gay marriage just as he's cutting funding for HIV/AIDS treatment, housing and meal programs.
"Gay marriage is an honorable subject to fight for, but if we’re homeless or we're dead, gay marriage is irrelevant," said Jim Lister, 56, who was diagnosed with AIDS in in 1989 and has been struggling to keep the West Village apartment he’s lived in for the past 30 years.
Those in the audience applauded the mayor for his support.
"It was very inspiring," said Ross Levi, executive director of the Empire State Pride Agenda, following the speech. "When the mayor speaks out that means a lot."
Still, he declined to endorse the mayor’s call for an immediate vote upstate.
"We’re looking forward to having a successful vote," Levi said.
John Feinblatt, the mayor’s chief advisor for policy and strategic planning, and Department of Consumer Affairs Commissioner Jonathan Mintz, watched the mayor speak with their daughter, Maeve, 8, by their side.
"It makes me feel very proud,” said Mintz.
What would be the best part of being allowed to marry? Getting to see his daughters as flower girls at their dads' wedding, he said.
A recent Siena Research Institute poll estimates that a record high of 58 percent of New York's registered voters support gay marriage.