January 8, 2010
By DAVID KOCIENIEWSKI
TRENTON — The State Senate on Thursday rejected a proposal that would have made New Jersey the sixth state in the nation to allow marriages involving same-sex couples. The vote was the latest in a succession of setbacks for advocates of gay marriage across the country.
After months of intense lobbying and hours of emotional debate, lawmakers voted 20 to 14 against the bill, bringing tears from some advocates who packed the Senate chambers and rousing applause from opponents of the measure, who also came out in force. The vote ends the effort to win legislative approval of the measure, and sets the stage for a new battle before the New Jersey Supreme Court.
“We applaud the senators for upholding a time-tested institution: marriage,” said Len Deo, president of the New Jersey Family Policy Council, which has argued that gay marriage would weaken the social fabric by redefining one of society’s bedrock institutions.
Supporters of gay marriage had hoped to win approval for the measure before Jan. 19, when Gov. Jon S. Corzine, who promised to sign it, will be replaced by Gov.-elect Christopher J. Christie, who opposes it.
With the effort to win legislative approval now dead, supporters of same-sex marriage vowed to focus their efforts on the state’s highest court, which in 2006 ordered lawmakers to give same-sex couples the same rights as others whether or not they called such unions marriages. The Legislature responded by enacting a civil unions law, but gay-rights leaders say that the measure still leaves them subject to discrimination when applying for health insurance or trying to visit partners in hospitals, and that they will ask the court to grant them equal treatment.
“Even our opponents in the Legislature acknowledge that the civil-union law has not provided equal protection,” said Steven Goldstein, chairman of Garden State Equality, who has led the lobbying for the past six years and wept as the bill’s sponsor, Senator Loretta Weinberg of Teaneck, introduced it.
The defeat in New Jersey, which has widely been viewed as one of the nation’s most socially tolerant states, was a significant setback for advocates of gay marriage. Last month, a similar measure was defeated in New York’s Legislature, and in November voters in Maine repealed a gay-marriage law in a referendum.
But leaders of Lambda Legal Defense Fund, which has helped coordinate gay rights causes in New Jersey and elsewhere, said they said they were confident that the court would prove more receptive than the Legislature.
“We are upset, we are disappointed, but we aren’t done fighting,” said Leslie Gabel-Brett, Lambda’s director of education and public affairs.
Opponents of gay marriage said that they, too, were prepared for a legal fight. Jon Tomicki, a leader of the New Jersey Coalition to Preserve and Protect Marriage, said that legislators had already complied with the court order by enacting civil unions, and urged lawmakers to let the public cast its verdict on gay marriage in a referendum.
“In 30 other states, voters have gotten the chance to decide,” Mr. Tomicki said. “There’s no reason why New Jerseyans shouldn’t have the same right.” In nearly every instance in which gay marriage has been put up for a referendum, it has been defeated.
But supporters of gay marriage view their cause as a matter of civil rights which should be settled by the courts and Legislature, and point out that in 1915, New Jersey voters in a referendum rejected giving women the right to vote. Five years later, the 19th Amendment granted women voting rights.
Although it was not a major issue in the governor’s race, the effort to win legislative approval of same-sex marriage is widely viewed as a casualty of Mr. Corzine’s defeat in November. Some Democrats who had been receptive to the issue, and took financial and organizational support from gay activists, grew squeamish.
Senator Stephen M. Sweeney, who is scheduled to become Senate president this month, said he thought voters would look unkindly on the Legislature if it pushed for a social issue at a time of economic suffering. Senator Sweeney did not cast a vote on the measure on Thursday. In all, five senators did not vote and one was too ill to attend.
Senator Gerald Cardinale, a Republican from Cresskill, said during the debate on the Senate floor on Thursday that the results of the governor’s race were a clear indication that voters opposed gay marriage. Senator Cardinale said that although the civil unions statute was flawed, the state would be doing “violence” to the institution of marriage by changing its current definition as a union between one man and one woman.
“There are many who believe that this bill will change our entire culture,” he said, shortly before casting his “no” vote.
But Senate President Richard J. Codey, a Democrat from Essex, said that the furor surrounding gay marriage was based on the same type of unfounded fear of the unknown that was used to justify discrimination against women and racial minorities.
“One day people will look back and say, ‘What were they thinking?’ ” Senator Codey said, and, “ ‘What were they so afraid of?’ ”
After the vote, hundreds of supporters of the bill gathered in front of the State House to exchange tearful hugs and plot the next move in their effort. Among them was Christi Sturmont, who said she and her partner were dejected, but not despondent.
“We were holding out hope that we’d be able to get married and have full citizenship,” she said. “But now we’ll have to settle for second-class citizenship. For now. We’re not done fighting.”