Monday, February 13, 2012

New Jersey Senate Passes Gay Marriage Legislation; Hurdles Remain

New Jersey's State Senate has passed its version of a gay marriage legislation package that largely mirrors the language used in passing the New York version that was enacted into law last year.

The main difference between New York and New Jersey's situation is that Gov. Andrew Cuomo was a prime mover in getting the gay marriage legislation passed in New York and was willing to provide political cover to Senate Republicans.

In New Jersey, the situation is quite different. Gov. Chris Christie is on the record as saying he'd veto gay marriage legislation but would have no problem putting the matter up for referendum on the November ballot. Legislative Democrats are hoping to force the issue by making him take a stand.

The Senate's passing the bill by a 24-16 margin was significant, but falls short of the 27 votes that would make passage veto-proof. It's also far better than similar legislation received just two years ago:
But advocates hailed the Senate vote as a huge advance, noting that they won 10 more votes than they did two years ago. And both supporters and opponents said they were surprised by the margin: the bill needed 21 votes to succeed and passed 24 to 16.

“The margin brought the notion of an override out of fantasyland,” said Steven Goldstein, chairman of Garden State Equality, a gay rights group. “Before today, I would have said the chances of an override were one in a million. Now I’d say it’s about one in two.”

Overriding the anticipated veto would require the approval of two-thirds of both houses, which in the Senate translates to 27 votes. But Democrats, who control the Legislature and have made the bill their top priority this year, argue that they have nearly two years — until the session ends on Jan. 14, 2014 — to muster just three more votes than they won on Monday.

Most significantly, supporters won the support of the Senate president, Stephen M. Sweeney, who abstained from voting two years ago. He has since called that the biggest mistake of his political life, and is the bill’s chief proponent. As the tally was flashed on a board above the Senate chamber, Senator Sweeney, a Democrat from Gloucester County, thrust a thumbs-up in the air.

“These are human beings with feelings that love their partners and they want to be married,” he said. “So be it.”
Politics is driving the legislation at this point - and both sides know it. Everyone is looking to leverage the issue going into November.

Sweeney abstained two years ago when Gov. Corzine was in office and was amenable to passing the bill. Now, Sweeney has shifted his tune and was not only for the legislation, but has become one of its prime sponsors. It also contains key religious protections that would provide cover for other Republicans who are in swing districts around the state:
Sen. Paul Sarlo of Wood-Ridge was another Democrat who sat out that 2010 vote. He too voted yes Monday, saying that his views and those of his constituents have changed since then.

“We’ve evolved on this issue,” Sarlo said on the floor Monday after the vote. “It’s a civil rights vote.”

A practicing Catholic, Sarlo said he’s now confident that “all the religious protections are still in place.”

“That was very important to me,” he said.

Two Republicans – Sens. Jennifer Beck, R-Monmouth, and Diane Allen, R-Burlington – also added their votes to the “yes” column on Monday.

The text of the bill is here.

The Assembly is largely expected to pass the bill, which means that it will be left up to Gov. Christie to sign or block the passage. I think that Christie really doesn't have an issue with accepting gay marriage but it would seriously hurt his chances for higher office down the line with the Tea Party. So a referendum would punt the issue. Democrats aren't going to let him off so easily. It's playing politics with gay marriage, when it is a civil rights issue.

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