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Topics In the News
New Jersey Legislature Passes Marriage Equality Bill
Posted by: Claude J. Summers on 02/16/12
Last updated on: 02/17/12
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Governor Chris Christie.

On February 16, 2012, the New Jersey Assembly passed, on a vote of 42 to 33, legislation that authorizes same-sex marriage. The bill in question passed the New Jersey Senate on February 13, on a vote of 28 to 16. The legislation now proceeds to the desk of Republican Governor Chris Christie, who has promised a "swift" veto.

According to the New York Times, Stephen Goldstein, chairman of Garden State Equality, welcomed the legislature's favorable vote even as he recognized the likelihood of the governor's veto: "We know the governor won't let us enter, but we finally behold the view of our dreams and we will never turn back."

Openly gay Assemblyman Reed Gusciora said in a news release after the vote that "this is probably one of the highlights of my legislative tenure--no matter what the ultimate outcome may be."

According to the New Jersey Star-Ledger, Senate President Stephen Sweeney thanked Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver and her colleagues "for taking the next step in establishing fair and equal rights in New Jersey."

"Marriage equality will happen in New Jersey," Sweeney said in a statement. "The only question that remains is whether Governor Christie will be on the right or wrong side of history."

Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund issued the following statement in response to the legislature's action: "Today New Jersey's General Assembly rose above the political fray and did right by New Jersey's families. Governor Christie should follow their lead--but if he doesn't, legislators should continue to stand for equality and override his veto. Marriage equality in New Jersey is a matter of when--not if. New Jersey should choose to join the right side of history soon, because loving same-sex couples and their families should not have to wait any longer."

Lambda Legal's press release pointed added, in reference to their legal challenge to civil unions in the state, "We believe there are many paths to justice, and Lambda Legal continues to fight for marriage equality in the courts on behalf of seven same-sex couples, Garden State Equality, and all families in New Jersey."

The governor could allow the bill become law without his signature, but if he does veto the bill, the legislature will have until the end of the legislative session in January 2014 to override his veto. Neither chamber currently has enough votes to do so. The Senate was three votes shy of a two-thirds majority when it voted, and the Assembly was 12 votes short of the number needed to override a veto.

Democratic legislative leaders say that will not rush for an override vote. Instead, they plan to bide their time in hopes that support for marriage equality continues to grow in the state and thereby increase pressure on legislators.

"Civil rights is incremental, civil rights is long range, and you take one achievement at a time," said Goldstein.

Governor Christie has stated that the question of same-sex marriage should be put to a referendum, a suggestion that was roundly rejected by Democratic leaders.

Christie has pointed to recent polls showing that 54 percent of New Jersey voters favor marriage equality. In a major faux pas, he added that activists in the civil rights era "would have been happy to have a referendum," a statement that angered many civil rights leaders and for which he later apologized.

"Subjecting the equal rights of same-sex couples to the whims of the majority--and to the multimillion-dollar campaign which will inevitably precede the vote from special interests nationwide, intent on preserving the status quo--to me, that's offensive and unprecedented," Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, said before casting her vote in favor of the same-sex marriage bill.

In a video posted on the Advocate website, op-ed contributor Jim Morrison tells readers what they can do to help Governor Christie do the right thing.

In 2006, New Jersey established civil unions that ostensibly provide all the rights and responsibilities of marriage. The legislature acted after the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled unanimously "our State Constitution guarantees that every statutory right and benefit conferred to heterosexual couples through civil marriage must be made available to committed same-sex couples."

Although three of the court's seven members argued that the court should simply mandate same-sex marriage, the majority decision left it to the state legislature to determine whether to adopt civil unions or marriage as the proper remedy.

However, a state commission found in 2008 that civil unions do not provide the same rights as marriage, concluding that "the Civil Union Act invites and encourages unequal treatment of same-sex couples and their children."

In 2010, following the defeat of a marriage bill in the legislature, Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, which had argued the 2006 case, went back to court alleging that the civil unions remedy was inadequate, arguing that civil unions did not in reality confer equal rights to gay and lesbian couples.

In November 2011, Superior Court Assignment Judge Linda Feinberg granted Lambda Legal the right to proceed with their case over the objections of the state Attorney General. A court date has not been set.

"I don't think that the court can remain silent and take no action if the result is that those benefits are not equal in the protections," Judge Feinberg said.

Governor Christie could save New Jersey the cost of an expensive legal battle by simply allowing a gay marriage bill to become law without his signature.

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