NEW YORK Thousands of gay and lesbian New Yorkers are getting ready to say "I do" this weekend, as the Empire State becomes the sixth in the U.S. to embrace same-sex marriage.
A state law signed June 24 by Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo goes into effect at 12:01 on Sunday, allowing hundreds of couples statewide to tie the knot, including 823 in New York City alone.
In preparation for the crush of well-wishers and media, police on Friday installed barricades near the Manhattan marriage bureau, where 459 same-sex couples are to be married on Sunday.
With the addition of New York, same-sex marriage will be legal in six of the 50 U.S. states -- Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York and Vermont -- and the District of Columbia.
Gay rights activists say the move by New York, the most populous state to date to allow gay marriage, sends a clear signal to Washington that it's time to push changes to federal laws.
"This historic step shows that marriage equality is an increasingly nonpartisan issue," said Herndon Graddick, a senior director of programs at the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.
"Republicans and Democrats joined the majority of Americans who agree that equal protections under the law for loving and committed couples is the only option in a healthy and just society."
A recent Siena poll found that 58 percent of New Yorkers support gay marriage. Nationally, the U.S. public is nearly evenly split, with 45 percent in favor and 46 percent opposed, according to a recent Pew Research Center poll.
Gay and civil rights activists want to see changes to a federal law, the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
U.S. President Barack Obama's administration in February concluded that the 15-year-old law that prohibits same-sex couples from receiving marriage-based federal benefits was unconstitutional and indefensible in law.
In another victory for gay rights advocates, President Obama on Friday announced the U.S. military's ban on gays will end on September 20.
The move will make good on his 2008 campaign promise to end the 18-year-old "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy that forced gays to keep their sexual orientation secret in order to serve in the military.
(Reporting by Eric Johnson; Editing by Tim Gaynor)