New York lawmakers narrowly voted to legalize same-sex marriage Friday, handing activists a breakthrough victory in the state where the gay rights movement was born.

New York will become the sixth state where gay couples can wed and the biggest by far.

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Colin Cunliffe, left, and Brewter Mccall, right, of Manhattan, celebrate the legalization of same-sex marriage in New York State outside the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street. ((John Minchillo/Associated Press))

The New York bill cleared the Republican-controlled state Senate on a 33-29 vote. The Democrat-led Assembly, which passed a different version last week, is expected to pass the new version with stronger religious exemptions and Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who campaigned on the issue last year, has promised to sign it.

Same-sex couples can begin marrying begin 30 days after that.

The passage of New York's legislation was made possible by two Republican senators who had been undecided.

Senator Stephen Saland voted against a similar bill in 2009, helping kill the measure and dealing a blow to the national gay rights movement.

"While I understand that my vote will disappoint many, I also know my vote is a vote of conscience," Saland said in a statement to The Associated Press before the vote. "I am doing the right thing in voting to support marriage equality."

Gay couples in gallery wept during Saland's speech.

New York important to gay advocates

Senator Mark Grisanti, a GOP freshman from Buffalo, also said he would vote for the bill. Grisanti said he could not deny anyone what he called basic rights.

Though New York is a relative latecomer in allowing gay marriage, it is considered an important prize for advocates, given the state's size and New York City's international stature and its role as the birthplace of the gay-rights movement, which is said to have started with the Stonewall riots in Greenwich Village in 1969.

The effects of the law could be felt well beyond New York: Unlike Massachusetts, which pioneered gay marriage in 2004, New York has no residency requirement for obtaining a marriage licence, meaning the state could become a magnet for gay couples across the country who want to have a wedding in Central Park, the Hamptons, the romantic Hudson Valley or that honeymoon hot spot of yore, Niagara Falls.

Catholic bishops 'deeply disappointed'

Amid the celebration, New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan and bishops around the state released a statement condemning the passage of the law by the Legislature, saying they were "deeply disappointed and troubled."

"Our society must regain what it appears to have lost, a true understanding of the meaning and the place of marriage, as revealed by God, grounded in nature, and respected by America's foundational principles," the statement from the Roman Catholic leader read.

Gay-rights advocates are hoping the vote will galvanize the movement around the country and help it regain momentum after an almost identical bill was defeated here in 2009 and similar measures failed in 2010 in New Jersey and this year in Maryland and Rhode Island.

The sticking point over the past few days: Republican demands for stronger legal protections for religious groups that fear they will be hit with discrimination lawsuits if they refuse to allow their facilities to be used for gay weddings.

Now, all 32 Republicans have approved stronger religious protections.

6th state to allow same-sex couples to wed

New York, the nation's third most populous state, would join Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and Washington, D.C., in allowing same-sex couples to wed.

For five months in 2008, gay marriage was legal in California, the biggest state in population, and 18,000 same-sex couples rushed to tie the knot there before voters overturned the state Supreme Court ruling that allowed the practice. The constitutionality of California's ban is now before a federal appeals court.

While court challenges in New York are all but certain, the state — unlike California — makes it difficult for the voters to repeal laws at the ballot box. Changing the law would require a constitutional convention, a long, drawn-out process.

Movement on the bill comes after more than a week of stop-and-start negotiations, rumors, closed-door meetings and frustration on the part of advocates.

Online discussions took on a nasty turn with insults and vulgarities peppering the screens of opponents and supporters alike and security was beefed up in the capitol to give senators easier passage to and from their conference room.