N.J. lawmakers still struggle with same-sex marriage issue

Posted: November 09, 2012

TRENTON - Supporters of same-sex marriage celebrated this week when voters in three states approved gay marriage and those in a fourth state blocked an effort to ban it.

But Tuesday's results have not persuaded lawmakers to put the question of marriage equality on the ballot in New Jersey, a decision supported by the largest gay rights organization in the state as well as a leading U.S. same-sex marriage advocacy organization.

"It would be a terrible road for New Jersey to go down," Evan Wolfson, a civil rights lawyer and founder and president of Freedom to Marry, a national gay-marriage group, said Thursday. Campaigning for the ballot question would involve "a huge amount of work and money and time and nervousness that nobody should have to go through."

New Jersey's Democratic-controlled Legislature in February approved a bill to legalize same-sex marriage, which Republican Gov. Christie promptly vetoed. Voters should decide the issue, he said.

But legislative leaders have refused to heed his call, arguing that a voting majority should never determine the rights for a minority group.

"I think a same-sex marriage referendum would have passed in this presidential election," Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D., Bergen) said Thursday. "But as far as I'm concerned, we don't put civil rights issues on the ballot. . . . I just don't believe that that's how civil rights that should be constitutionally afforded to our citizens should be decided."

Nine states and Washington, D.C., permit gay and lesbian couples to marry, and laws in three other states will take effect soon.

On Tuesday, voters in Maryland and Washington state upheld same-sex marriage laws that their legislators and governors had approved this year. Opponents of the legislation had challenged the actions, giving voters the chance to override them.

In Maine, voters agreed to legalize same-sex marriage three years after they blocked a gay-marriage law at the polls.

Minnesota this week became the first state to reject by popular vote a constitutional ban on gay marriage.

None of the victories came cheaply, Wolfson said. His organization spent roughly $10 million to advocate for same-sex marriage in Washington state and Minnesota, $7 million in Maryland, and $6 million in Maine.

Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, an antigay marriage group based in Princeton, said those in favor of marriage equality should not make too much of Tuesday's results. "These were deep-blue states. We were outspent 3-1," he said.

"In New Jersey, I think we can still win a popular vote," he added.

Lawmakers in the state should continue to fight for marriage equality in the Statehouse and in the courts, said gay rights advocates.

A referendum isn't "just a contest of popular opinion," Steven Goldstein, chairman of the New Jersey gay-rights group Garden State Equality, said in a statement.

It's "also a contest of which side can raise more millions. A referendum puts a community's civil rights up for sale to the highest bidder."

The successes in Maryland and Washington came because their legislatures passed "Freedom to Marry" bills that opponents sought to overturn, Wolfson said. "We were able to prevent that, but it cost millions of dollars and it was a difficult fight," he said.

New Jersey's lawmaking process would not allow for that. If the Legislature wants to move forward with same-sex marriage, it must override Christie's veto, which requires a two-thirds vote in both chambers. The Legislature has never overturned a Christie veto because Republican lawmakers - even some who initially supported the bill in question - always back the governor.

Alternatively, the legislature could approve a constitutional amendment and put the issue to voters - a method Republican leaders have sought but Democrats refuse to consider.

Gay marriage advocates also are embroiled in a years-long battle in the courts. A lawsuit filed in June - again seeking same-sex marriage rights - is in Superior Court in Mercer County and headed for trial in 2013, said Hayley Gorenberg, lead counsel for the plaintiffs. It could take years to reach the Supreme Court.

In Pennsylvania - where Republicans now control both legislative chambers and the governorship - a law was passed in 1996 that forbids recognition of a same-sex union. Since then, the Assembly has attempted to pass a constitutional amendment to define marriage as a relationship between one man and one woman, but it has never made it to the governor's desk.

Pennsylvania Sen. Daylin Leach, (D., Montgomery) said that he may not be able to get a bill to legalize same-sex marriage out of committee, but he intends to tack it on as an amendment to any related legislation that advances to the Senate floor.

"We'll see if Republicans vote for it," he said. "We dare them to stand in the way of progress.

New Jersey first recognized domestic partnerships in 2004 and began to grant civil unions in 2007.

A majority of state voters support legalizing same-sex marriage, according to a survey this year. A Quinnipiac University poll that interviewed nearly 1,500 registered voters in January found 52 percent in support of gay marriage and 42 percent opposed. It was the first time that support for gay marriage in the state topped 50 percent.

Patrick Murray, a political analyst at Monmouth University, said there was no doubt that there has been a "sea change in terms of voters' attitudes" toward gay marriage. He credits that, in part, to President Obama's public support of the issue this year.

When California voters approved a measure in 2008 to outlaw gay marriage, 70 percent of black voters supported the ban, Murray said. In Maryland this week, only half of black voters opposed legalizing same-sex marriage.

Had gay marriage been on the ballot in New Jersey on Tuesday, Murray said, it probably would have passed.

"That's the big question: Should the ends justify the means?" he said.

Assemblyman Timothy Eustace, (D., Bergen), one of two openly gay members of the Assembly, said the results from other states this week encouraged him. But the Legislature would be shirking its responsibility if it passed the buck to the voters, he said.

"There's 32 states that ban same-sex marriage, that's a frightening number," he said. "I think it's incumbent upon the Legislature to protect the rights of the entire citizenry."


Contact Joelle Farrell at 856-779-3237 or jfarrell@phillynews.com or on Twitter at @joellefarrell.

Inquirer staff writer Amy Worden contributed to this article.

 

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