In N.J., battle lines remain intact

Awaiting the ruling were New Jerseyans (from left) Casey Oakes, 26, of Monroe; Dan Choyce, 21, of Sicklerville; Zach Wulderk, 19, of Hammonton, and his brother Dylan Wulderk, 22.
Awaiting the ruling were New Jerseyans (from left) Casey Oakes, 26, of Monroe; Dan Choyce, 21, of Sicklerville; Zach Wulderk, 19, of Hammonton, and his brother Dylan Wulderk, 22. (CLIFF OWEN / AP)
Posted: June 28, 2013

Backers of same-sex marriage in New Jersey were reinvigorated Wednesday, with Democratic lawmakers said to be contemplating an attempt to override Gov. Christie's veto of a bill that sought to legalize it.

But Christie himself had nothing but scathing words for the U.S. Supreme Court's decision upending the federal Defense of Marriage Act, dismissing the ruling as "wrong" and "typical" of the judicial activism that he perceives in the state high court.

The Republican governor's reaction - and the strong allegiance GOP lawmakers have to him - underscored the high hurdle before legislative Democrats who need some Republican votes to get the two-thirds majority needed to override his veto.

One Democrat, Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D., Mercer/Hunterdon), called for an emergency vote Thursday on a bill he has sponsored that would put gay marriage to a popular vote. The governor has previously urged something similar, a referendum on a constitutional amendment, but the Democratic leadership has rejected that as being inappropriate for a civil rights question.

Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak said the matter could not procedurally be handled as called for in Gusciora's bill. Gusciora accused the governor of "doing a two-step."

Some say the U.S. Supreme Court decision will shift the focus of the debate in New Jersey from the political arena to the state courts.

State Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D., Union) said the decision means the state Supreme Court will soon take up the matter, and likely find that gay marriage in New Jersey is constitutional.

"The DOMA ruling means that the New Jersey Supreme Court will soon allow gay marriage in the state," he said in a statement.

Not so fast, counter gay-marriage opponents.

Len Deo, president of the New Jersey Family Policy Council, said the DOMA decision did not establish gay marriage as a constitutional right. He called for a federal marriage amendment recognizing only heterosexual unions which he said are "timeless and universal."

But the DOMA decision boost gay activists already fighting in court to overturn New Jersey's civil union statute, which they say has been inadequate.

Garden State Equality, a gay rights group, sued former state Attorney General Paula Dow in 2011, alleging that the civil union law denies gay couples the full rights and protections afforded married heterosexual couples, violating both the state and federal constitutions. The lawsuit asks that the court affirm gay couples' right to be married.

The case is an extension of earlier litigation that resulted in a 2006 state Supreme Court finding that New Jersey's ban on gay marriage violated the state constitution. In response, the Legislature enacted the civil union statute in 2007, but gay activists contend it failed to afford same-sex couples the same rights as marriage.

Under the state's civil union statute, same-sex couples are entitled to many of the same rights as married couples. But there are significant differences.

Since the federal government did not recognize same-sex marriages or civil unions, such couples in New Jersey were not eligible for benefits that heterosexuals might obtain under federal tax law. Same-sex spouses, for example, carried on a partner's employee health insurance policy must treat the cost of insurance as taxable income, says Stephanie Hunnell, who heads the LGBT section of the New Jersey State Bar Association.

Steve Burch, 52, a volunteer coordinator, has to pay tax on the health benefits he gets through his partner Stephen Drayton's job. He and Drayton, 57, a couple for nearly 14 years, live in Collingswood.

The money matters, Burch allowed.

But for he and many others who waited anxiously for the high court's ruling, Wednesday was a day of high emotion, with tears of joy and relief. Rather than dwelling on tax returns, Burch let himself start to imagine his and Drayton's wedding:

"I can't wait to hold his hand and look into his eyes and tell all my friends and family how important he is to me."

Indeed, many people said something they thought might never happen seemed to move closer.

"This will give us marriage in New Jersey," said Troy Stevenson, executive director of Garden State Equality. "I think this is going to move legislators. They are going to see the inequality."

Jay Lassiter, 41, an activist who lives in Cherry Hill, called his partner Greg Lehmkuhl, 46, and his father, a former Marine, moments after the DOMA decision was announced.

"It's our Super Bowl," Lassiter said. "We just won our Super Bowl. But this isn't a game. It's our lives."

"This is a huge victory for equality in this country," said Tara Bailey, 35, a clinical social worker who lives in Collingswood and would like to be able to marry her partner Diane Matkowski, 41.

Manish Mishra-Marzetti, 42, senior minister with the Unitarian Universalist Church, lives in Cherry Hill with partner Jeff Mishra-Marzetti, 43, and their 2-year-old adopted son, Jacen.

Mishra-Marzetti said he used to believe no state would approve gay marriage in his lifetime. He remembered the "heartaching" betrayal he felt nearly 20 years ago when President. Bill Clinton - whose campaign he worked for while a student at Georgetown University - signed DOMA into law.

Wednesday morning, he finally saw it undone and wept.

"I look at my son, and all I can think is, 'Thank God.' " he said. "It's a ruling in favor of my family."


Contact Chris Mondics

at 609-989-9016 or cmondics@phillynews.com.

Staff writer Matt Katz contributed to this article.

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