By State House Bureau Chief Briana Vannozzi
More than 120 witnesses signed up to testify at today’s Assembly Judiciary Committee hearing on The Marriage Equality and Religious Exemption Act. The chair of the committee, Assemblyman Peter Barnes (D-18), told a packed room that every person who signed up to speak would be given the chance to do so, even if it meant going late into the evening.
Democratic lawmakers got the ball rolling with Speaker Sheila Oliver, one of the bill’s sponsors, who compared the right of same-sex couples to marry to civil rights issues by saying “this is the same message that Jim Crow racial segregation laws represented in this country.” Oliver went on to say same-sex couples are not viewed as equals in the eyes of the law.
The bill’s primary sponsor Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-15) and Assemblyman Tim Eustace (D-38), the only two openly gay members of the legislature, addressed the committee along with Democratic Senators Loretta Weinberg and John Wisniewski, two of the bill’s sponsors in the upper house.
Meanwhile, farther up the state in Denville, Morris County, the governor was holding a town hall meeting and again called for a referendum on the issue saying, “the polls that I’ve seen show that if this goes to the ballot, I lose.”
Rough estimates have been floating around that the Assembly will have approximately 34 votes in favor of the bill should it advance out of committee as expected. But the magic number is 41. Speaker Oliver and Senate President Steve Sweeney are steadfast in their opposition to a November ballot question.
The Assembly is planning on holding a private meeting Monday to poll members of the caucus and scrounge up the needed votes. Even if they do, it’s uncertain what the bill’s fate will be or if the Legislature will have the two-thirds majority to override the governor’s veto.