Christie Pledges Gay-Marriage Veto as Democrats Push Forward

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie pledged to veto a same-sex marriage bill, even as Democrats in the Legislature said they have enough votes to pass it.

Christie, a first-term Republican, said he wants voters to consider a constitutional amendment on the issue in November. The debate should happen “in homes, schools, synagogues, churches and ballfields across New Jersey,” Christie, 49, told reporters in Bridgewater today.

“The institution of marriage is too serious to be treated like a political issue,” he said.

The Senate Judiciary Committee passed the measure today, sending it to the full Senate. Lawmakers in Washington state said yesterday they have the votes to legalize gay marriage and Governor Christine Gregoire, a Democrat, has said she’ll sign the bill. Six U.S. states -- New York, Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Connecticut -- allow gay marriage.

New Jersey Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, both Democrats, said a bill to make gay marriage legal is a top priority for their party, which controls both houses of the Legislature. Sweeney said the issue is one of civil rights that shouldn’t be placed on the ballot.

Top Priority

Supporters of same-sex marriage, including openly gay assemblymen Reed Gusciora and Tim Eustace, said it the only way to address inadequacies in New Jersey’s civil-unions law.

“This is the time for this,” said Senator Loretta Weinberg, a Democrat from Teaneck and a sponsor of the measure. “It would guarantee equal rights to a large segment of our community that has been denied them up until now.”

Democrats control the Senate judiciary panel 8-5. The bill passed by a vote of 8-4, with one Republican absent. It heads to the full Senate, where the party has a 24-16 majority. The measure has the votes to pass the upper house, said Weinberg and Senator Raymond Lesniak, a co-sponsor. Both are members of the Judiciary Committee.

A proposed constitutional amendment would need to be approved by three-fifths of the Legislature to appear on the November ballot, and would then need support from a simple majority of voters for passage.

An amendment isn’t needed and won’t be supported by Democrats, because the constitution already guarantees equal rights for everyone, Lesniak said.

“We had a referendum on civil rights in the 1920s when the voters of this state voted against a woman’s right to vote,” said Lesniak, a Democrat from Elizabeth.

Civil Unions

Christie’s predecessor, Democrat Jon Corzine, signed a measure in 2006 to allow civil unions, after the state Supreme Court ordered lawmakers to extend marital rights to gay couples. In 2008, a state panel said civil unions don’t provide the same benefits and protections as marriage. The law is being challenged in state court by Lambda Legal, a national gay-rights advocacy group.

Christie said today that he believes that “the institution of marriage, as it has traditionally been known, is between one man and one woman and that it should stay that way in New Jersey.”

“If this bill comes to my desk, I will veto it and I will work hard to make sure my veto is sustained in the Legislature,” he said. “I would certainly be willing to be governed by the decision of the people of this state, especially in a year when the most people will be voting.”

Gay Judge

Christie yesterday said he wanted to put the first-ever openly gay justice on the state’s Supreme Court. He said the nomination of Bruce Harris, the Republican mayor of Chatham, shouldn’t be interpreted as a sign he had changed his mind on the gay-marriage issue.

Eustace, an Assembly sponsor of the bill who said his civil union wasn’t recognized by hospital personnel when his partner had heart surgery last week, said the protections have been incomplete. The couple have been together 31 years and have a son, Kyle Eustace-Williams, 23.

“It’s like telling black people ‘you can drink water but not out of the same fountain as us,’” said Kyle Eustace-Williams. “It’s ridiculous.”

Second Try

The gay-marriage bill would also need approval from the Assembly, where hearings will be scheduled soon, said Tom Hester, a spokesman in the lower chamber for Democrats, who have a 48-32 edge. Oliver expects it to pass, Hester said.

Two years ago, Democrats failed to pass a gay-marriage bill, even as Corzine promised to sign it. The measure, which needed 21 votes in the Senate for approval, was defeated 20-14 with three abstaining, including Sweeney. He later said he made a mistake in not voting.

James White, past supreme director and current member of the New Jersey Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal service organization, said, “It’s not possible for either two men or two women” to have the same “sacred bond between one man and one woman.”

“No act of the Legislature can change this reality just as you can’t change an apple into an orange with this law,” White said at the hearing, attended by more than 200 people.

Public support for same-sex marriage in New Jersey reached a high of 52 percent in a Quinnipiac University poll released Jan. 19. The issue had support from 41 percent of voters in a 2006 poll by the Hamden, Connecticut-based polling institute.

Sweeney’s decision to support the bill this time will bring the needed votes in New Jersey, Weinberg said.

Senator Christopher Bateman, a Republican from Somerville, said he intends to speak to Sweeney and Democrats after today’s hearing in order to begin drafting a referendum question.

“This year is a presidential election, so why not let the voters decide,” he said. “Voters should have a say on an issue this important.”

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