With NJ Senate rejection, fight turns to courts

Spectators watch the New Jersey Senate vote on marriage equality. Photo credit: Chuck Colbert.

Spectators watch the New Jersey Senate vote on marriage equality. Photo credit: Chuck Colbert.

TRENTON, N. J. — Even before the votes were tallied Thursday afternoon in the New Jersey Senate on a marriage equality bill, advocates of the bill knew they would fall short, according to a leading co-sponsor, Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Teaneck), following the vote.

The marriage equality bill needed 21 votes to pass in Senate deliberation Thursday; it garnered only 14. Twenty senators voted against it.

But though the bill’s defeat was neither unexpected nor surprising, it was yet another stinging loss in a series of defeats on marriage equality in recent weeks. Maine voters repealed a marriage equality bill there in November; the New York Senate rejected a bill in December.

Although Democrats control the New Jersey Senate 23 to 17, six Democrats voted against the measure, and only one Republican, Bill Baroni of Mercer County, voted in favor.

One surprise, however, was three abstentions in the vote from Sens. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen), Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and James Beach (D-Camden). Sen. Andrew Ciesla (R-Ocean) was not present for the tally, and Sen. Diane Allen (R-Burlington) was out sick.

At a press conference held immediately after the Freedom of Religion and Equality in Civil Marriage Act was defeated, representatives of Garden State Equality (GSE), New Jersey’s leading gay civil rights advocacy organization, along with leaders from Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund and the state chapter of the ACLU, spoke to reporters.

“We’re not waiting out the term of any new administration to bring equality to same-sex couples,” said GSE’s chairperson Steven Goldstein, a reference to the incoming Republican governor-elect Chris Christie, who takes office January 19. Christie has made clear he opposes same-sex marriage and will “not sign a bill if it came to my desk.”

Both supporters and opponents of marriage equality in New Jersey credit the November defeat of current Democratic Governor Jon Corzine — by five percentage points and 100,000-vote margin, big for decidedly blue progressive state — as a key dynamic in the changing fortunes of marriage equality.

“Before the election,” explained Goldstein, nearly every neutral observer in New Jersey thought marriage equality was certain to become law in lame duck.”

“In contrast to today’s outcome,” he said, “before the election, we had votes to spare in the Senate, including from a number of Republicans.”

But Corzine’s loss apparently reshuffled the state’s political cards significantly. Still GSE remained optimistic, even hopeful, pressing for a vote this week. With prospects of same-sex marriage in the state’s legislative and executive branches exhausted — effectively road-blocked for at least four years — Lambda Legal’s executive director Kevin Cathcart provided a rationale for taking legal action now.

“The requirement to ensure equality for same-sex couples, established by the New Jersey Supreme Court in its decision in our marriage lawsuit in 2006 [Lewis v. Harris], has not been met,” he said in a statement. “There is enormous, heartbreaking evidence that civil unions are not equal to marriage, and we will be going back to the courts in New Jersey to fight for equality. Too many families are at risk. We cannot wait any longer.”

Faced with criticism from gay civil rights activists nationally over the decision to put the bill up for a vote, Goldstein said the Senate’s defeat of same-sex marriage now provides evidence, perhaps helpful in a court challenge, to argue that the legislature has failed to act in providing full equality, which the unanimous 2006 New Jersey Supreme Court decision requires.

Joining Goldstein at the post-vote press conference, Leslie J. Gabel-Brett, Lambda’s director of education and outreach activities, said details of a New Jersey state-court challenge would be forthcoming, provided by the organization’s legal team.

“We’re going to win marriage equality,” she said.

On the Senate floor before the roll call vote, lawmakers and observers in the gallery heard heartfelt and for the most part respectful testimony from about half a dozen senators. Marriage equality supporters compared the issue to that of African American civil rights and said that the current civil unions law not only was separate and unequal, but also not working.

Republican Senator Baroni explained, “Separate but equal was wrong in 1954,” a reference the US. Supreme Court’s striking down in Brown v. Board of Education of racially segregated public schools.

“Separate but equal can certainly be separate, but it can never be equal,” he said. “Unequal treatment by government is always, always wrong.”

In making their appeals for a “Yes” vote, outgoing Senate president Richard J. Codey (D-Essex) and Sen. State Sen. Nia H. Gill (D-Montclair), an African American, pointed to the 1960s civil rights movement, specifically to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1967’s striking down in Loving v. Virginia of interracial marriage.

Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D – Essex) told colleagues that she had not planned to speak but was moved to do so after hearing them speak about the marriage bill in civil rights terms.

“If I have the honor and privilege to continue to serve here,” she said, “I don’t ever want to take a vote that says it’s OK for me, but not for you.”

In other floor speeches, lawmakers pointed to the denial of health insurance benefits to employee’s civil unions partners as evidence of a civil unions law that is broken. The Employee Retirement Insurance Security Act (ERISA) — under which self-insured New Jersey companies are governed — does not, under federal law, recognize civil unions as the equivalent of marriage. Consequently, companies are not required to grant partner benefits. In New Jersey, ERISA covers and estimated 55 percent of Garden State companies.

But Sen. Gerald Cardinale (R-Demarest), an ardent marriage equality opponent, insisted that the state’s existing civil unions law could be strengthened without doing “violence against marriage.” Cardinale said governor-elect Christie’s win over Corzine was proof positive of where voters stand on same-sex marriage.

Hundreds, if not a thousand or more advocates on both sides of the marriage issue crowded into the Statehouse before the vote, including GSE boosters dressed in blue tee-shirts reading “EQUALITY: The American Dream.” Opponents wore red and sported other “traditional marriage” buttons and T-shirts.

When Senate leadership announced the final vote, opponents broke out in loud applause.

Some marriage equality advocates, deeply saddened by the outcome, broke out in tears.

“It’s a slap in the face,” said Trevor Powell, a GSE field-staff volunteer. “It’s like someone saying your relationship is good, but it’s not as good as ours.”

Cherry Hill resident Jay Lassiter, another GSE volunteer, said, “I am absolutely devastated today that our Senate had a chance to validate equality for people like me in a six-year committed relationship with my partner Greg.”

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