By Edith Honan
NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York state lawmakers voted on Wednesday against legalizing gay marriage, dashing gay rights activists' hopes it would become the sixth U.S. state to allow same-sex couples to wed.
The New York state Senate voted down the legislation by 38-24. Governor David Paterson, a Democrat who supports gay marriage, had said he would have signed the bill into law if it had passed.
"This is an enormous victory," said Maggie Gallagher, the leader of the National Organization for Marriage, which opposed the law. "What you saw was the will of the people. .... The culture really hasn't shifted on gay marriage."
Iowa, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont have legalized gay marriage, while 40 U.S. states have specific laws that ban gay marriage. Last month, voters in Maine chose to repeal a law that had legalized gay marriage.
"This is a civil rights issue. Marriage equality is as important as the emancipation of any group from oppression and the granting of equal rights to any community," Paterson said. "As disappointed as we are today, let's get up tomorrow and redouble our efforts."
New York is one of the most politically liberal states in the country. Recent polls showed a majority of New York voters favored allowing same-sex couples to marry, but one poll showed the public evenly split.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said he was "deeply disappointed" the Senate had not legalized gay marriage.
"Historic change does not come easily, but this vote was a crucial step that, I believe, will ultimately lead the state to extend full marriage rights to all couples," he said.
New York's Democratic-controlled state Assembly has easily passed the bill legalizing same-sex marriage three times, but the legislation had not been voted on in the Senate until now.
The Democrats hold a Senate majority of 32-30, but several Democratic senators opposed legalizing gay marriage.
"Put the issue to a referendum and let the people vote," said Ruben Diaz, a Democratic state senator and Pentecostal minister who opposed bringing the bill to a vote.
"Where you give the people the opportunity to vote for it, the people will reject it," he said.
"We will not accept defeat and we will not stop fighting until all New Yorkers are treated equally," said New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who is gay.
Gay rights lobby group the Empire State Pride Agenda, said marriage would entitle gay couples to 1,324 rights -- from tax to adoption benefits -- that otherwise would be denied.
"This is a painful loss for loving and committed same-sex couples in New York who want the same things all Americans do: to take care of each other and their families," said Jarrett Barrios, president of national gay advocacy and anti-defamation group Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.
The result in New York has worried gay marriage activists in New Jersey, where the Democratic-controlled state Legislature is considering taking up the issue before Democratic Governor Jon Corzine leaves office in January.
Corzine has said he would sign a bill legalizing gay marriage. He was defeated in November by Republican Chris Christie, who has said he would veto such a bill. New Jersey already permits same-sex civil unions.
"What happened in New York can't be good," said Steven Goldstein, the head of the New Jersey gay rights group Garden State Equality.
(Additional reporting by Elizabeth Flood Morrow in Albany, writing by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Peter Cooney)