N.J. advocates seek to solidify gay-marriage policy

Posted: October 25, 2013

TRENTON Supporters of same-sex marriage declared victory when Gov. Christie on Monday dropped his appeal of a trial court decision that allowed gay couples to begin marrying that day.

Though they say the battle is won, New Jersey lawmakers who back gay marriage are now trying to decide what steps they should take to pass a law reinforcing the trial court's decision, and to address civil unions and religious exemptions - two issues not resolved by the court.

The question, top Democrats say, is whether they should continue efforts to override Christie's veto of a bill allowing gay marriage, introduce a new bill eliminating civil unions and scaling back on religious-exemption provisions included in the original legislation, or do nothing - for now, at least.

"We know what the legal issues are," said Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D., Bergen), one of the sponsors of the original gay-marriage bill. "The decision now is how we handle it politically."

Same-sex marriage supporters had been working toward a veto override - a vote that would require a two-thirds majority in both houses. In light of the state Supreme Court's strongly worded refusal Friday to stay same-sex marriages, followed by Christie's decision Monday to cede the court battle, an override effort could be perceived differently, lawmakers said.

If same-sex marriage supporters try for an override, "that's political," said Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R., Union). He said the issue had "basically been decided by the Supreme Court."

"If you want to sit down and address all the issues we now face through the court decision, to me that's the mature way to handle it," Bramnick said.

Because the original bill was introduced in the Senate, an attempt to override Christie's veto would have to begin there as well.

Weinberg and Sen. Ray Lesniak (D., Union), who also sponsored the bill, did not say whether they were leaning toward one approach or another.

Given the court's decision, there's a question "as to whether we can garner enough Republican votes to make" an override effective, Lesniak said.

Weinberg noted that, unlike with an override, introducing a new bill would require only a simple majority to pass: 41 votes in the Assembly and 21 in the Senate. The original bill passed by 42 in the Assembly and 24 in the Senate. Christie would not have to sign the bill for it to become law.

As they weigh their options, "there is no rush to do anything," Weinberg said. She said gay couples in New Jersey "have the strongest protection of any state in the nation."

Still, Weinberg said, "since this is really a lower-court ruling" - a Mercer County Superior Court judge ruled last month that the state must allow same-sex couples to marry - "it is a good idea, just to be safe for the future, to have this memorialized in legislation."

Lesniak said it was necessary for the Legislature to take action. "Doing nothing is not an option," he said. "Marriage equality is still not the law of the land in New Jersey. Civil unions are the law of the land."

Troy Stevenson, executive director of Garden State Equality, a plaintiff in the lawsuit that was the subject of the court ruling, disputed that characterization.

"It needs to be made very clear that right now and forevermore we have marriage equality," Stevenson said. He said Lesniak, "a very good lawyer," was taking a "legalistic" view of the issue.

"Marriage equality is the law of the land in New Jersey," Stevenson said.

He said Garden State Equality planned to hold a conference call with lawmakers on the issue. Though same-sex marriages face no threat, Stevenson said, some issues need to be addressed, including recognition of same-sex marriages performed in other states. A directive from the attorney general could likely resolve that issue, he said.

The court decision did not provide for the dismantling of civil unions. The original bill would have converted civil unions to marriages 60 days after its passage, unless couples dissolved the unions.

"We've always said you can't give a civil union to opposite-sex couples," Weinberg said. Now that gay couples can marry, "we can't have a special class," she said.

If lawmakers decide to introduce a new bill, they may also reexamine the question of religious-exemption provisions. The original bill exempted clergy from performing same-sex marriages if they were opposed. It also included exemptions for religious organizations, protecting them from lawsuits for refusing to provide space, services, or goods to couples.

Weinberg said the Constitution, by guaranteeing freedom of religion, already protects clergy who object to performing same-sex marriages.

The exemptions were included "to make sure we had the broadest possible ability to gain the most votes in the Legislature," Weinberg said. Now, she said, the circumstances are different.

"We are negotiating from a level of strength here," she said.

Len Deo, president of the New Jersey Family Policy Council, which opposes same-sex marriage, voiced concern over any paring of religious exemptions.

"The bill that's there now has very, very weak religious protection exemptions in it," he said. "I think we need stronger protection."


mhanna@phillynews.com

609-989-8990

@maddiehanna

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