The effort to allow same-sex couples to marry in New Jersey may have died with its final passage by the Assembly on Thursday, since neither house has enough votes at the moment to override Gov. Chris Christie's promised veto.
While they basked in the legislative victory, supporters acknowledged that the battle is far from over and vowed to keep fighting.
Backers of the gay marriage bill said they will have almost two years to get the votes for an override, and they will work hard to do just that. The issue could bring new intensity to campaigns in at least two heavily Republican districts where Assembly seats will be on the ballot in November.
No one denies that Christie will win the next round with the "swift action" he reiterated Thursday afternoon he would take to veto the bill. But the legislature could have the final victory if the state Supreme Court uses the measure's passage to decide a constitutional challenge to New Jersey's current civil union law.
"We are exuberant advocates but also methodical strategists," said Steven Goldstein, chair of Garden State Equality. "To win an override we will take the time we need assisted by a changing world."
But if the override fails?
"This shows legislative intent to the court," Goldstein added. "No one can doubt the legislature wanted equality in marriage because civil unions failed."
The lower house voted 42-33 following more than two hours of debate often interrupted by cheers from those on both sides of the issue -- supporters in blue, opponents in red -- in the Assembly gallery. The approval came just three days after the Senate's 24-16 vote. Passage in both houses was better than the last time lawmakers considered the concept: the Senate rejected it 14-20 in 2009.
Still, both houses fell short of veto-proof majorities: the Senate by three votes, the Assembly by 12. The latter had even opponents applauding the vote and feeling like winners as they left.
"They don't have enough votes, that's good," cheered Julio Barrientos of Roselle.
Getting enough votes for an override in the Assembly is going to be difficult. Four Democrats voted against the bill, with none rising to explain his vote, while one was absent and one seat is currently vacant. No Republicans backed it, although two – Mary Pat Angelini and Declan O'Scanlon, both of Monmouth County -- are said to be possible "yes" votes. Even if the Democrats get all of those votes for an override, they would still have to convince four more Republicans to go against their governor.
It might be somewhat easier in the Senate, where two Republicans, Jennifer Beck of Monmouth and Diane Allen of Burlington, voted "yes" and two Democrats, Jeff Van Drew of Cape May and Ronald Rice of Essex, voted "no." Still, even if both Democrats reversed course and voted to override Christie, the party would need another Republican.
During the last legislative session, every attempt at a veto override lost. Last summer, when the Senate tried to overcome Christie's budget vetoes, they were able to get only one Republican vote -- Beck's -- on only one line item, to restore funds to women's health clinics.
"Two years ago, we had only 14 votes in the Senate; this past week we got 24," said Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) and prime sponsor in the upper house. "A lot of people evolved their positions over that time. That's what we're counting on."
Same-sex marriage activists may have to wait for an eventual ruling by the state Supreme Court on a case now pending in Superior Court involving seven same-sex couples. The suit, brought by Lambda Legal on behalf of Garden State Equality, charges that the state's civil union law has not given gay couples the same rights as married couples have as guaranteed by the constitution.
New Jersey's civil union law was only enacted in 2007 on the order of the state's highest court. It created civil unions and gave couples entering into these unions all the same rights and benefits that married couples have. But many same-sex couples say the law has not delivered on that promise and they face discrimination in many areas, especially healthcare.
"My partner had open heart surgery a month ago and my sons and I had problems going through all the hospital folderol," said Assemblyman Timothy Eustace (D-Bergen), who has been with his partner for 31 years.
In three of the six states that allow same-sex marriage, court rulings were responsible for gay couples winning that right.
Connecticut, Iowa and Massachusetts all permit same-sex marriage because of court rulings. Of the three, only Connecticut's legislature followed the court case by passing a law codifying gay marriage. Then-Gov. Mitt Romney tried to stop the Massachusetts court decision and Iowa's House has since voted to defy its court ruling.
In those states and the others where same-sex marriages are legal -- New York, New Hampshire and Vermont -- the debate has tended to be highly polarized and decided mostly along political lines, with Democrats in favor and Republicans against. Only in the District of Columbia, which leans overwhelmingly Democratic, did same-sex marriage pass with relative ease.
Marc Solomon, national campaign director of Freedom to Marry, said the climate is worst in New Jersey because of Christie's statements.
"Gov. Christie has hyper-partisanized the issue," he said. "He said he would twist arms to make sure his veto is sustained. Usually leaders encourage people to vote their conscience."
Asked again about the issue by reporters before the Assembly vote, Christie again charged the Democrats with turning the issue into a political football and said if they really want to see same-sex marriage become law they should agree to put it to a referendum.
"If you see them not moving to put it on the ballot, then you know this whole thing is about theater, because they knew what was going to happen," Christie said, referring to his promised veto. "I trust the people of New Jersey to be fair."
About midway through the debate, Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz (R-Union) sought to amend the bill to allow for a vote, but Democrats defeated that effort.
Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-Mercer), prime sponsor of the bill and the first openly gay member of the state legislature, said after the vote that he held out hope Christie might change his mind.
"After all, Scrooge after a good night's sleep changed his mind," quipped Gusciora, who said he met with the governor over this and other issues last week.
One after another, they argued either for the same-sex marriage bill as an important civil rights measure, akin to equal rights for blacks, or against the bill so that voters could decide the issue.
"The separate but equal characterization established by the civil union act invites and encourages unequal treatment of same sex couples and families," said Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex) and a co-sponsor of the bill. "We can make history today."
"I struggled over this issue over the last few week . . . The people who sent me here from my district sent me here to vote for what's right. Protecting the rights of everybody is not a religious issue, it's a civil rights issue. I'm here to protect everybody's civil rights. God will be the judge," said Assemblywoman Cleopatra Tucker (D-Essex), who characterized herself as a deaconess in her church, to a standing ovation from the bill's backers.
Assemblyman Jay Webber (R-Morris) said the bill is unnecessary because the civil union law is working. Of about 5,500 same-sex couples who have entered into a civil union, only 13 filed complaints with the state's civil rights commission and all but one of those was dismissed.
"There is no evidence of widespread trampling of civil rights in this state," Webber said.
"Our constitutional protections are eroded when the government can dictate who constitutes the kind of family that makes up a home," said Gusciora. "Whether one set of persons can say they are 'married' while another set of persons in similar circumstances can only say they are 'civil unionized.' Words do matter -- especially when it is the government who defines who can be married."
"I feel very strongly this should be left up to the voters," said Assemblywoman Alison Littell McHose (R-Sussex). "Let's get back to the real issues facing our struggling families."
Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex) tried to appeal to McHose and other Republicans who said the legislature should be spending its time on jobs and the economy. He said allowing same sex marriages would boost the state economy by $250 million, create 800 jobs, and bring in $18 million in additional tax revenues.
The arguments among most of the activists, who turned out en masse despite the rain, were simpler.
For supporters, many of whom wore blue shirts and buttons reading, "For Families and Equality," it's about the ability to marry a loved one.
"Enough already, let's just do it," said Jay Lassiter of Cherry Hill.
For opponents, it's about religion. Several dozen evangelical Christians and orthodox Jews rallied before the vote, holding signs reading, "Marriage = 1 man + 1 woman" and "Let the voters decide."
"We are a nation founded on the belief in one sovereign God and we are subject to him," said Faith Pressler of Little Ferry. "God first created man and woman as one flesh. There's no way, physically, that two women can become flesh. Two men may be able to do enough to get satisfied but they can't become one flesh. Americans need to wake up to the fact that we have one God and we are answerable to him."
Still, recent polls indicate a majority of New Jerseyans do not agree. 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."
The issue is playing out elsewhere in the nation as well. The governor of Washington signed a law making that state the seventh to allow same-sex marriages on Monday. After the New Jersey Assembly finished its debate, the Maryland House of Delegates began its own deliberations on the issue and is expected to vote on a measure today.