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N.J. Senate Passes Gay Marriage as Christie Threatens Veto

The New Jersey Senate passed a bill that would allow gay and lesbian couples to marry, in the face of Republican Governor Chris Christie’s promise to veto it.

The Senate voted 24-16 in favor of the measure, three votes more than needed. It heads to the Assembly, where Reed Gusciora, a sponsor, said he expects passage on Feb. 16. Democrats, who control both houses of the Legislature, have made gay marriage a priority, two years after they failed to pass a similar bill supported by then-Governor Jon Corzine.

Christie, 49, opposes gay marriage and wants voters to decide the issue in a referendum. New Jersey is among at least six U.S. states dealing with the issue this year. Washington Governor Christine Gregoire signed a bill today making her state the seventh to allow same-sex couples to wed. Lawmakers in Maryland and Illinois are debating the unions as North Carolina and Minnesota have proposed initiatives to ban them.

“When marriage equality was enacted in New York and more recently in Washington state, it could not have done so without the support of courageous Republicans who bucked their party because they knew they had to do the right thing,” Senate President Stephen Sweeney said during debate. “I know many of you deep down know this is absolutely the right thing to do.”

Fifty-four percent of New Jersey voters support gay marriage and 35 percent don’t, according to a Rutgers-Eagleton poll released today. When lawmakers weighed the issue in 2009, 46 percent were in favor and 40 percent weren’t.

Civil Rights

Voters nationwide have rejected gay marriage in all 31 referendums on the issue. Democrats in New Jersey say the right to marry is a civil freedom that shouldn’t be subject to a popular vote. Sweeney, a West Deptford Democrat, said “there’s not a chance in hell” he’d post a referendum bill.

Corzine, a one-term Democrat, signed a measure in 2006 to allow civil unions after the state Supreme Court ordered lawmakers to extend marital rights to gay couples. The law is being challenged in state court by Lambda Legal, a national gay-rights advocacy group, which argues that it doesn’t provide the same benefits and protections as marriage.

Hospitals, insurance companies and out-of-state businesses often deny spousal rights to gay couples, supporters of the so-called marriage equality bill said.

New Jersey’s civil-unions law is “government sanctioned and justified homophobia,” Senator Loretta Weinberg, a Teaneck Democrat and a sponsor of the marriage bill, said during debate. “The marriage of two committed and consenting people in love, whether they’re gay or straight, should make absolutely no difference to anyone else in the world.”

‘Pandora’s Box’

Senator Gerald Cardinale, a Cresskill Republican, said the bill seeks to change “thousands of years of human history.”

“The very definition of the term is that it involves at least one male and at least one female,” Cardinale said of marriage. “This bill opens a Pandora’s box. The unintended consequences may be more than we can imagine.”

Gusciora, a gay Democrat from Trenton, said he expects the measure to pass the Assembly with most Democrats and a “good showing” of Republicans supporting it.

Two years ago, a gay-marriage bill never made it to the Assembly floor. It was defeated 20-14 in the Senate with three abstaining, including Sweeney, who later said he made a mistake in not voting. It needed 21 votes for approval.

Override Votes

Two Republican senators, Diane Allen of Burlington and Jennifer Beck of Red Bank, voted for the bill today, while two Democrats, Ronald Rice of Newark and Jeff Van Drew of Cape May, voted no. Van Drew said his vote came down to a personal belief in the definition of marriage as between a man and a woman.

“I respect the opinions and views of all my colleagues, but it is my opinion that our republic was established to guarantee liberty to all our people,” Beck said during debate. “It’s our role as elected representatives to protect all of the people who live in our state.”

Democrats control the Senate, 24-16, and the Assembly, 48-32, and would need a two-thirds majority, or 27 members in the Senate and 54 in the Assembly, to override vetoes.

Senator Ray Lesniak, an Elizabeth Democrat and a sponsor of the gay-marriage bill, said his party can get the override if Christie lets Republicans vote their consciences, not politics.

Steven Goldstein, chairman of Garden State Equality, which has advocated for gay marriage, said Senate passage is a victory, even with a promised veto. The number of lawmakers voting for gay marriage surged to 24 from 14 two years ago, and supporters now have the entire two-year legislative session to win the three votes needed to override a veto, he said.

“An override now becomes a very real possibility,” Goldstein said in an interview. “To have a 70 percent increase in support doesn’t show you the world is changing -- it’s already changed. Wake up and smell the equality.”

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