New Jersey’s Democratic legislative leaders declared the legalization of same-sex marriage a civil rights issue and named it their top priority in the new session that begins today, setting the contentious issue up for a veto showdown with Gov. Chris Christie.
Although the last attempt to legalize gay marriage in the state ended losing in the Senate by a 14-20 vote, this time Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester), said he has at least the 21 votes needed to pass the bill in the upper house. Unlike the December 2009 vote, when he abstained, Sweeney will be among those supporting the effort.
Still, during a Trenton press conference at which Sweeney, Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex), and more than a dozen other Democrats vowed to pass legislation enabling gays to marry, Sweeney sidestepped questions about whether he had enough votes to override an expected Christie veto.
Even if Democrats in both houses have simple majorities, as Sweeney and Oliver state, it will be hard to muster the necessary 27 votes in the Senate and 54 in the Assembly to override, when the Democrats have just 24 votes in the Senate and 48 in the Assembly.
“We’ll work to do what we have to do … We’re going to work toward an override if necessary,” said Sweeney, adding he wants the full Senate to vote on the measure by mid-year. “We have many more Democratic votes.”
In 2009, the only Republican to vote for the Freedom of Religion and Equality in Civil Marriage Act, as it was called, was Sen. Bill Baroni (Hamilton). He has since left the legislature to join the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
Meanwhile, Democratic Sens. John Girgenti (Passaic), Fred Madden (Gloucester), Nicholas Sacco (Hudson), Ronald Rice (Essex), Shirley Turner (Mercer), and Jeff Van Drew (Cape May) all voted against the bill. Like Sweeney, James Beach (Camden) and Paul Sarlo (Bergen) did not vote. Only Girgenti is no longer in the Senate.
Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) and a cosponsor of the bill that the Senate voted down in 2009, made a point of saying yesterday that Sen. Jennifer Beck (R-Monmouth) supports the bill, although she did not attend the hearing. Beck voted against it two years ago, but has subsequently said publicly that she has changed her mind and will support it.
“I don’t give up on issues very easily,” said Weinberg, who will again cosponsor the same-sex marriage bill and also cosponsored the state’s current civil union law, enacted in December 2009. “This is, I think, a very bright moment in history for the state of New Jersey and indeed for civil rights in the state of New Jersey.
Sweeney agreed, saying the same-sex marriage bill will be numbered S1 in the upper house -- Oliver is making it A1 in the Assembly -- because it is a civil rights measure and as such is important enough to receive the coveted designation of number 1.
“Hopefully by doing the right thing here, this will continue to move nationally,” Sweeney said.
Oliver likened the fight for same-sex marriage to the difficulties biracial couples faced when they sought to marry 50 years ago.
“Civil unions send a message to the public that same-sex couples and their families are not equal to married couples in the eyes of the law,” Oliver said. “It sends a message that same-sex couples are not good enough to warrant equality. This is the same wrong message we heard from segregation laws. Separate treatment was wrong then. And separate treatment is wrong now.”
Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-Mercer) and the state’s first openly gay lawmaker, agreed.
“Marriage in this country is a secular right that is afforded to persons who abide by state laws,” said Gusciora, who will again sponsor the bill in the lower house. “When government is involved in the marriage business, it should be done on an equitable basis.”
Making same-sex marriage legal in New Jersey is important because the current civil union law isn’t working, according to several people at the press conference and the New Jersey Civil Union Review Commission.
In December 2008, the 13-member commission charged with evaluating the civil union law that passed in December 2006, found that “the separate categorization established by the Civil Union Act invites and encourages unequal treatment of same-sex couples and their children” and in numerous cases had negative effects on couples and their children. The Legislature passed the civil union law in response to a state Supreme Court ruling that mandated marriage equality to all consenting couples, finding that denying the same rights and benefits enjoyed by heterosexual couples to same-sex couples violates the equal protection clause of the state constitution.
The civil union law was seen at the time as an improvement over the state’s earlier domestic partnership law in that it gave couples more rights. Civil unions were meant to give a couple “all of the same benefits, protections and responsibilities under the law, whether they derive from statute, administrative or court rule, public policy, common law or any other source of civil law, as are granted to spouse in a marriage.” Those rights include family leave benefits, joint property ownership, health insurance and pension benefits, inheritances, and medical care decisions.
But in reality, civil unions have fallen far short of this dream, said two couples. Daniel Weiss, 47, said he entered into a civil union with John Grant, 46, in May 2009 “expecting we would be protected by the law,” but when Grant was struck by a car and critically injured in 17 months later in New York City, the hospital refused to honor any of the rights the New Jersey law supposedly gave them.
“It meant nothing,” said Weiss, who lives with Grant in Asbury Park. “At every level, from the hospital administration to the nurses to the neurosurgeon, no one understood what our civil union was.”
The neurosurgeon refused to perform the craniotomy Grant needed until Grant’s sister drove the four hours from Delaware to give her consent because the hospital would not recognize that Weiss was legally able to approve the operation.
“There’s no indignation worse than trying to help a loved one … only to be told that words do matter,” Weiss said.
Louise Walpin of South Brunswick said that her civil union with Marsha Shapiro has gotten her from an “otherwise very supportive employer health benefits on a year-to-year basis.”
The women, who have been together for 22 years and raised four children, said they are seeking dignity that current laws cannot give them: “This is a failed experiment that cannot be rectified.”
Steven Goldstein, who chairs Garden State Equality, said that while it has been only two years since the legislature last defeated the bill, “the world has changed … " Today, 35 million Americans live in states with marriage equity laws and that hasn’t caused any great increase in the divorce rate.
“All we want is equality,” he said.
Sweeney, a Catholic, said the new bill will not differ from the one which he declined to support in 2009, but he “had a change of heart” and now recognizes the issue as one of equal rights and equal treatment, not religious beliefs. The Catholic church opposes gay marriage and its opposition kept some lawmakers from voting for the bill in 2009.
That failed bill would have defined marriage as the legally recognized union of two consenting adults, regardless of sex, who are in a committed relationship and gives all married couples the same rights. It would abolish civil unions in the state: All those currently in such unions could either dissolve their unions, get married, or within 60 days they would automatically be considered married. It also explicitly state that no clergy member would have to perform, and no church provide space for, a wedding that violates the religious organization’s beliefs.
“By definition, it will protect those who by conscience feel they can’t marry people of the same sex,” said the Rev. Bruce Davidson, a Lutheran minister whose denomination allows for same-sex marriages. “You don’t have to worry this is something that infringes on our rights as religious people.”
Six states and the District of Columbia already recognize same-sex marriage. Marc Solomon, the national campaign director of Freedom to Marry, said public support for it has grown about 10 percent since New Jersey rejected the last bill.
A Rutgers-Eagleton Poll last August found 52 percent of New Jerseyans approve of same-sex marriage, and that level of support increases to 61 percent when the issue is framed as one of “marriage equality.”
Despite the strong affirmations that same-sex marriage is all but a fait accompli, John Tomicki of the New Jersey Coalition to Preserve and Protect Marriage, vowed to fight against it.
“Once you say marriage is only a civil rights issue, you open to door to anyone who wants to get married. There can be no barriers for age, gender or the number of people,” said Tomicki, adding that 31 states have adopted constitutional amendments defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
He said that if lawmakers are so sure New Jerseyans support same-sex marriage, they should put it up for a vote.
Sweeney nixed that idea during the press conference, saying issues of civil rights are the responsibility of the legislature and should not be put up for a vote.
The New Jersey Catholic Conference’s website has a Q and A on its position on same-sex marriage that demonstrates the group will not be swayed on the issue: “Marriage benefits society by bringing men and women -- the two complementary ‘halves’ of the human race -- together ... if the government insists that same-sex unions are “equal” to unions of husband and wife, the government will be teaching not only that mothers and fathers are no longer necessary for children, but also that uniting the sexes is no longer an important ideal. Persons of same-sex orientation have the right to live as they choose but they do not have the right to redefine marriage for everyone by altering the civil law.”
But Sweeney is not going to let such statements derail the bill this time.
“I’m not going to let this fail because of the religious argument,” Sweeney vowed. Still, being numbered one, or the top priority, does not guarantee a bill’s enactment. In the session that just passed, S1 was a measure that sought to abolish the much-maligned state Council on Affordable Housing and revise New Jersey’s affordable housing rules. The Democratic measure passed both houses, but was conditionally vetoed by Christie. Sponsor Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union), ultimately withdrew it last February. Christie abolished COAH on his own terms months later.