AFP - New York's legislature on Tuesday approved a law allowing gay weddings in the state, which now faces a much tougher reading in the upper house.
The lower house in the New York legislature approved the law submitted last month by Governor David Paterson, by a vote of 89-52.
If it passes the senate, the law would make New York the sixth and highest profile state allowing same-sex couples to wed, providing powerful impetus to other states considering such laws.
The same draft law approved Tuesday passed the lower house in 2007, but failed in the then-Republican led state Senate. Democrats now have a slim majority there, but observers say that may still not be enough.
The lower house's vote comes a week after Maine became the fifth US state to allow gay marriage, extending a wave of momentum in the traditionally liberal northeast of the country.
However, the issue remains deeply controversial, with the most bitter dispute taking place in California, where voters in November voted to overturn a state supreme court ruling legalizing gay marriage.
That row returned to the spotlight Tuesday when Carrie Prejean, the current Miss California USA, reinforced her position as the nation's unlikely new champion of traditional marriage.
At a televised press conference in New York alongside Donald Trump, the property tycoon who owns the Miss Universe organization, Prejean said she had been victimized for speaking out against gay marriage during last month's Miss USA competition.
Prejean, 21, wept as she delivered a politically charged speech, saying that her grandfather had fought in World War II to defend the freedom to hold different opinions.
"I exercised my freedom of speech and I was punished for doing so. This should not happen in America. It undermines the constitutional rights that my grandfather fought for," she said.
Trump backed the model and said he would not strip her of her Miss California crown despite the appearance on the Internet of pictures showing her semi-nude -- possibly in breach of her pageant contract.
Prejean said the pictures were released as part of a campaign of "hateful attacks, despicable rumors and false allegations" against her following her stand on traditional marriage.
In addition to Maine, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Vermont, as well as the central state of Iowa, have extended full marriage rights to gay couples.
Last week New Hampshire, which is also in the northeast, moved closer to adopting such a law.
And on May 5 the Washington DC city council approved a bill recognizing gay marriages performed in other states.
There is also growing debate over whether the US military should allow openly homosexual men and women to serve.