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Democrats Make Marriage Equality Their No. 1 Priority

Christie calls for public referendum. Sweeney: 'We don't put civil rights on the ballot.'

Credit: Amanda Brown

The Democrats drew a clear line Tuesday when they released the Senate version of the marriage equality bill (S1), honoring a promise to make the issue their first priority.

Gov. Chris Christie, in a political counterpunch, stole some of the Democrat's thunder by arguing he believed the issue should be decided by public referendum.

He also reiterated his pledge to veto the Marriage Equality and Religious Exemption Act if it crosses his desk.

Christie's latest action, as well as proposals to cut the income tax and to raise the minimum wage, show that the focus among politicians in Trenton has moved to the 2013 gubernatorial election and either strengthening or weakening Christie as he begins the second half of his term.

“Everyone is now looking ahead to 2013,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. “This really is a game of chicken, where each side is daring the other to take the first step.”

The situation also "allows Democrats to respond to the criticisms that they have received from the party’s base that they have been too cozy with Gov. Christie,” said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University.

“This is clearly a civil rights issue for the Democratic party,” he added.

That description comes through in an exchange between Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D- Gloucester) and state Sen. Christopher Bateman (R-Somerset) and a member of the judiciary committee.

During the hearing, shortly after Christie’s comments, Bateman interrupted testimony to announce the governor’s willingness to put the issue on the ballot. He offered to discuss that with Sweeney.

The Senate president quickly dismissed the offer, saying “We vote on issues here. We don’t put civil rights on the ballot.”

Dozens of gay couples, religious representatives, lawyers, and others testified on both sides of the contentious issue. A rally by supporters of same sex marriage drew hundreds prior to the hearing and so many attended that the overflow crowd filled a second committee hearing room in the Statehouse Annex.

Numerous people who entered into civil unions, which passed in December 2006 in response to a state Supreme Court ruling that New Jersey had to stop discriminating against gay couples, said that law is not working and they are still discriminated against, particularly in the area of healthcare. Several representatives of the state bar association and other lawyers agreed.

Richard Steen, the immediate past president of the state bar association, said the civil union law is “inefficient and burdensome” and likely will not stand up to another challenge – Lambda Legal has filed suit against the law – because it does not provide the equal protection required by the constitution.

Others, including New Jersey Family Policy Council president Len Deo, said that there is no proof of the law’s ineffectiveness. Since it was enacted, some 5,400 couples have entered into civil unions and only 13 have filed civil rights complaints as a result of it and 12 of those were dismissed, he said.

“Let the people weigh in on a public policy of this magnitude,” he said.

Ronald Chen, the state’s last public advocate before the office was abolished, disagreed.

“There are obviously in my view some civil liberties issues, and equal protection is one of them, that simply should not be subject to a vote,” Chen said, and noted that in 1915, New Jersey put the question of women’s suffrage to a vote and it was defeated 58 percent to 42 percent.

Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) and bill co-sponsor, cited the same vote as one reason why the legislature should not vote on this issue, which she and the other Democrats say is one of civil rights.

“It is a matter of justice,” she said.

Sweeney, also a co-sponsor of the bill, has said there are enough votes to get the bill passed in the Senate, unlike in 2009, when the measure failed 14-20 and Sweeney himself abstained. The upper house is expected to take up the bill on February 13.

Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex) said the Assembly Judiciary Committee will hear the measure (A1) next Monday and she expects it to pass the lower house.

It’s likely that the bill will make it to Christie’s desk.

During a town hall meeting in Bridgewater, Christie said it’s the legislature that is making the issue a “political football,” because they are pushing it despite knowing that he believes marriage by definition is the union of one man and one woman.

“It is clear to me that the legislature knows this, as well,” he said. “I will not sign it, it will be vetoed.”

Rather than have a stalemate -- an indication Christie would tell Republicans to oppose a veto override -- the governor called for putting the question to a vote this November, when the state would have the largest number of voters coming out for the presidential balloting.

“This issue that our state is exploring -- whether or not to redefine hundreds of years of societal and religious traditions -- should not be decided by 121 people in the Statehouse in Trenton,” Christie said. “Let’s let the people of New Jersey decide what is right for the state.

“I support giving New Jerseyans the ability to give voice to their support or their opposition to this issue,” Christie continued. “Let’s make sure that political maneuvering is not what judges this, and let’s make sure this is not just someone trying to have fun and create a campaign issue. It’s too serious.”

Murray said it is partly about politics.

He added that New Jerseyans, and their real concerns over issues like property taxes, jobs, and the economy are the losers in the political battle because their wants are not being addressed by either side.

Rob Eichmann, who identified himself as a Gloucester County resident during the hearing and who wrote a recent blog post on the same sex marriage debate on the Conservative New Jersey website, made that point late in the hearing.

"In the midst of this great recession, you said same sex marriage is your top priority. Is this really the single most important legislative goal in our state?" he asked. "New Jersey citizens feel blindsided by you," he said.

The Democrats hope that if the economy does not improve and the governor is vulnerable, Christie’s veto of the bill could help the party’s standard bearer defeat him.

On the other hand, his veto, which Christie says would be in keeping with his long-held beliefs about marriage, should further endear him to the political right If he is re-elected in in New Jersey in 2013, that could help him in a national run in 2016.

“It just reeks of politics,” Murray said. “Both sides are overly concerned about the governor’s future.”

Murray said the call by Christie, timed to coincide with the Democrats’ hearing, should help the governor with conservative Republicans but could also help him with other voters because the idea of putting the question on the ballot sounds democratic.

“This was a parry by the governor … It would allow him to take no action. Gay marriage advocates are wary, because while a majority of people support it, there is no guarantee that is what would happen when it reaches the ballot. The governor knows that.” The Democrats, whose leadership supported Christie’s pension and health benefit cuts last spring and were criticized by unions and other supporters as a result, need a prominent issue with which they can contrast their party against the governor, said Dworkin.

“The governor is an extremely gifted politician,” said Dworkin. “Even his detractors admit he has kept his opponents on their heels.

“There are political implications here aside from the fact that the Democrats just believe in the issue. It helps the Democrats with their base.”

He said today’s move by Christie was politically astute, but he’s not sure how it will ultimately play out, given the Democrats have already dismissed the call to put the measure on the ballot.

Colleen O'Dea is an editor-at-large for NJ Spotlight

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