Same-sex marriage legislation is dead in the New Jersey for at least the next four years, with the state Senate voting down a bill 20-14 Thursday. But while the legislative battle is over, the judiciary battle has just begun. Responding to the bill's defeat Thursday, Garden State Equality announced it would fight for gay marriage in court: "We are not waiting out the term of any new administration to bring equality to same-sex couples in our state."
New Jersey has allowed same-sex civil unions since 2006, but there was a rush to pass gay marriage legislation before January 19, the date when current Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine leaves office and Republican Chris Christie takes his place. Corzine supports same-sex marriage but Christie has said he would veto a gay marriage bill.
A vote had already been delayed once before, after the legislation narrowly passed the Senate's Judiciary Committee by a 7-6 vote and the bill's sponsors did a quick count of those in favor in the Senate. They found they did not have the votes to pass the bill, so they withdrew it from the agenda and tried to build momentum in the state's General Assembly. But with the reluctance of that chamber to make the first move on this controversial legislation, the state Senate put the bill to a vote Thursday.
Bill sponsor Loretta Weinberg called on the legislators to provide equal legal and societal protections to same-sex couples: "The average New Jerseyan doesn't care about anyone else's marriage. . . . I think the average New Jerseyan is more worked up about the failure of the Giants to make the playoffs." Sen. Raymond Lesniak, another sponsor, cried while reading an email from a constituent who described her gay brother's rise from poverty and said, "Thank you for fighting for his rights."
Sen. Gerald Cardinale spoke against the legislation, saying that the state can fix problems with civil unions "without doing violence to marriage." He added, "So momentous a change should be, must be submitted to the people for a public vote. . . . New Jerseyans should be trusted with self-determination when momentous cultural changes are proposed and decided." This has been an effective method for traditional marriage advocates, since gay marriage has been defeated every time it has been put to a public referendum. Cardinale argued that the gubernatorial election was a referendum on the issue and said, "I respect the vote of the people this past November."
Same-sex marriage opponents hailed the bill's defeat as a victory. The New Jersey Family Policy Council (NJFPC) and its legislative action arm, New Jersey Family First, worked with the New Jersey Catholic Conference and the National Organization of Marriage to mobilize about 1,000 grassroots supporters across the state for the bill's defeat. Although Sen. Bill Baroni claimed that the bill contained the single toughest religion protection amendment in the country, NJFPC president Len Deo said it "had a number of deficiencies that we were very concerned about." Although Garden State Equality may be taking its case to the courts, Deo said the legislative battle is over for now: "The bill is now dead."