N.J. gay rights backers divided on next step

Supporters of extending marriage to gay couples in New Jersey rally in Trenton. Gov. Christie again said he opposed gay marriage; his foe in November, Barbara Buono, sought a veto override. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Supporters of extending marriage to gay couples in New Jersey rally in Trenton. Gov. Christie again said he opposed gay marriage; his foe in November, Barbara Buono, sought a veto override. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 29, 2013

TRENTON - Gay rights advocates in New Jersey were fired up Thursday following the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark decisions paving the way for same-sex marriage, but they were split into three camps about what to do next.

Although confident that New Jersey's system of civil unions for gay couples would be replaced with marriage by the end of 2013, advocates and Democratic supporters face a stumbling block in Republican Gov. Christie, who on Wednesday affirmed his opposition to gay marriage and blasted the Supreme Court decision.

State Sen. Barbara Buono (D., Middlesex), Christie's opponent in the November election, called his opposition "spineless."

As the Democrats' candidate, she is the de facto standard bearer for the party, but she was a lonely voice Thursday in calling for an immediate override of Christie's 2012 veto of a gay-marriage bill.

The Democrats, while in the majority in the Legislature, need a dozen more votes in the Assembly and three in the Senate - mostly from the Republican side of the aisle - to achieve an override. Buono told a rally outside the Statehouse Thursday morning that such a vote should happen that very afternoon.

"For anyone who needs [political] cover, well, they've got it now. Our Supreme Court gave it to them," Buono said.

Buono's pro-gay-marriage colleagues disagreed. Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) did not post the bill Thursday, and a longtime gay-rights backer, State Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D., Union), said supporters should first try to win in the courts.

That effort has begun. A filing related to New Jersey's civil unions law is scheduled to be entered next week.

New Jersey civil unions are intended to provide the rights of marriage without calling it marriage. But while the Supreme Court affirmed that married gay couples should be given the same considerations under federal law as married straight couples, it leaves those in civil unions without 1,138 federal rights, advocates said.

For example, they said, gays in New Jersey cannot file joint income tax returns or sponsor a partner for immigration, as married couples in other states now can.

"Traveling in and around America, our civil rights fade in and out like cellphone reception," said gay activist Jay Lassiter of Cherry Hill.

Advocates say this lack of equality now makes civil unions illegal under federal law. To that end, the gay-rights group Lambda Legal is to file a motion Wednesday in Superior Court. Oral arguments are scheduled for Aug. 15.

The case could end up in the New Jersey Supreme Court, where advocates are convinced they will be rewarded with approval of same-sex marriage.

Aside from a veto override and the courts, some see a third potential road to gay marriage in New Jersey.

The state's first openly gay lawmaker, Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D., Mercer), said he knew of six Assembly members who would change their votes and support an override. But that would not be enough, so, he said he wanted the question posted on the November ballot.

That was Christie's suggestion, too, in his veto message last year. Christie said Wednesday that he would vote "no" in the voting booth, but that only the people should be able to change a "an institution that's over 2,000 years old."

Gay-rights advocates have long opposed putting what they see as a civil right up for popular vote.

When the issue came up Thursday during a Statehouse news conference packed with gay-rights supporters, one woman screamed, "No ballot for civil rights!"

Regardless of how gay marriage in New Jersey happens, supporters say, it will happen and is only a matter of time.

Gusciora said he believes even Christie privately favors gay marriage.

"I think he lives in New Jersey in the 21st century. I'm sure he has gay relatives and friends and believes they have the same rights as any other couple," Gusciora said.

But Republicans fear political repercussions. Gusciora said.

"I think they know where their bread is buttered - or where they get their peanuts for their trunks," he said.

Contact Matt Katz at 609-217-8355, mkatz@phillynews.com, or follow @mattkatz00 on Twitter. Read his blog, "Christie Chronicles," at www.inquirer.com/christiechronicles.

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