Inquirer Editorial: A very long engagement

New Jersey Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) in 2010.
New Jersey Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) in 2010. (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer)
Posted: October 11, 2013

The 13 states where same-sex couples can marry include a swath of the Eastern Seaboard stretching from Maine to Washington, with one exception: New Jersey. State Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) rightly hopes that will change soon, whether at the hands of the Legislature or the courts. "We're out of the dark ages now," he said recently. "Let people marry."

The unenlightened era Sweeney referred to, however, was not quite medieval. In fact, for the Senate president, the dark ages were less than four years ago, when he himself declined to vote on a bill to legalize gay marriage.

Sweeney was one of three Democratic senators who voted neither yea nor nay on the legislation in 2010; another six Democratic senators voted no. With outgoing Democratic Gov. Jon S. Corzine eagerly waiting to sign the bill, the Senate's ruling Democrats could have cleared the way for same-sex marriage without a single Republican vote, and with a few of their own to spare. But they didn't.

Granted, Gov. Christie and his fellow Republicans in the Legislature are the current barrier to same-sex marriage in New Jersey - as Sweeney and other Democrats have wasted no opportunity to remind us. And Sweeney has described his 2010 cop-out as the greatest mistake of his career while striving furiously - and so far vainly - to correct it.

But should this be such a struggle for deep-blue New Jersey in 2013? Across the river, Pennsylvania has a governor who recently wondered whether gay marriage is better compared to unions of children or of siblings, as well as a Republican-controlled legislature that is unlikely to be at the vanguard of any civil rights issue. In New Jersey, however, 62 percent of voters - and nearly half of Republican voters - favor legalizing same-sex marriage, according to a recent Fairleigh Dickinson University poll. State policy is glaringly out of step with that public sentiment.

Sweeney is looking to remedy that with a veto-proof legislative supermajority, but that would require substantial Republican support. Meanwhile, a state Superior Court judge recently ruled that New Jersey's same-sex couples should be allowed to marry given that the federal Defense of Marriage Act has been struck down. That could lead the state Supreme Court to revisit its inconclusive 2006 ruling on the subject. And Sweeney and others have urged the high court to let same-sex marriages proceed while the Christie administration's appeal of the lower-court ruling unfolds.

Ultimately, New Jersey's progress toward same-sex marriage looks inevitable. But it will come later than it should have, and probably by judicial rather than legislative action.

Yes, Christie and other Republicans should support same-sex marriage. But New Jersey's position as an uncharacteristic laggard on the issue is at least a bipartisan failure, and, in important respects, a Democratic one.

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