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Assembly Panel Considers Gay Marriage Bill [AUDIO]

Senate President Steve Sweeney, Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, and Governor Chris Christie
Governor's Office

Democrats call their bill to legalize same-sex marriage a civil rights issue that must be taken up by the legislature. Governor Chris Christie says emphatically that he’ll veto the measure if it passes.

It’s an apparent exercise in futility, but an Assembly committee will consider the legislation today.

The Assembly Judiciary Committee will meet at 10am this morning to consider the bill. The Marriage Equality and Religious Exemption Act (A-1) would eliminate the civil unions that have been in place since 2007. It would also provide that no clergy of any religion authorized to solemnize marriage nor religious society, institution or organization in the state would be required to conduct any marriage in violation of their free exercise of religion.

“My position is really clear the same way theirs (Democrats) is and my position is no less valid than theirs,” says Christie. “Their position is they want it. My position is I don’t and so if they pass it I will veto it…….My view on it is we have an honest difference of opinion on this issue, but that’s honest an difference of opinion that’s existed since I ran for Governor. I was asked about this then. I made very clear what my position was and I’ve kept my position very clear throughout.”

“The creation of civil unions has produced a separate-but-equal system, and as we know from our history classes, separate-but-equal is as unconstitutional as it is inherently unequal,” says bill sponsor Assembly Reed Gusciora. “This law would make a significant difference in providing equality to same-sex New Jersey couples and their children.”

It remains unclear if the necessary 41 votes for passage in the full Assembly are even there. Christie says if the legislature wants to pass the bill they can go ahead and do that, “and I’ll perform my constitutional duty as I see fit and we all know what I’m going to do.”

Last week, a bill to legalize same-sex marriage in the Garden State was approved by the State Senate Judiciary panel setting the stage for a vote in the full Upper House this month.

State Senate President Steve Sweeney is one of the bill’s sponsors. He says, “It will be voted on in the very first meeting that we (the full Senate) have in February.”

Many are concerned that there are not the needed 21 votes to pass the bill in the Upper House, but Sweeney’s worried, “As the Senate President I can tell it is going to pass.”

In his testimony before the commitee, Sweeney said, “For those who haven’t made up their mind or who are leaning towards voting no, I ask you, please take a closer look. What we are trying to accomplish is solely a matter of basic civil rights. Nothing more, nothing less. How would you feel if your government told you you couldn’t marry the person you loved because of who you chose to love? We are past that time in our history…or at least we should be.”

Jenny Stanbro was among those opposed to the legislation in the packed committee room. She says she’s been married to her husband for 37 years. She has 6 kids and 8 grandchildren. Stanbro had never testified on a bill before yesterday when she said, “I’ve always trusted and expected that my government, both parties, would support something so basic to a civilized society as that of marriage between one man and one woman.”

Townsquare Media News first reported that legalizing gay marriage in New Jersey is a top priority and it will be put on the fast-track in 2012. Leading Democratic lawmakers made it official with a press conference earlier this month.

Gusciora said when formally introducing the bill he co-sponsors, “Now more than ever we have broad support particularly from the State Senate President, Steve Sweeney and the (Assembly) Speaker Sheila Oliver…..In the end, it shouldn’t be a political issue. This is a recognition that same-sex couples have the same right to legal recognition of marriage as heterosexuals.”

Designating the same-sex marriage legislation as S-1 has real significance because it sends the message that the measure is the top issue. The co-sponsors are Senate Democratic Leader Loretta Weinberg, State Senator Ray Lesniak and State Senate President Steve Sweeney. Sweeney wants, “to right a wrong.” Gusciora’s bill is designated A-1.

A little over two years ago, a gay marriage bill failed in the Upper House. Then-Majority Leader Sweeney did not cast a vote at all. He has since said publicly, “That was the biggest mistake I’ve ever made in government and I couldn’t live with myself after that.”

Garden State Equality chairman and CEO, Steven Goldstein says, “We are simply elated that Senate President Steve Sweeney is not only a supporter of marriage equality now, he’s leading the way on the new marriage equality bill.”

Democrats say that in 2009 and 2010 they failed because they didn’t frame their argument well enough. They insist that this time around they will explain that same-sex marriage is a civil rights issue, not a political issue or a religious issue. Then-Governor Jon Corzine said he would’ve signed the bill into law if the legislature would’ve passed it.

Governor Chris Christie is on record saying he’s, “not a fan” of same-sex marriage and he wouldn’t support it. Sweeney says, “We’re not asking for the Governor’s permission and we’re not backing down or backing off.” He’s hopeful Christie will read the bill and understand it as a civil rights issue and feels if that happens he would see it makes no sense for him to block it.

“We think it has enough votes to pass,” says Goldstein. “Do we think the Governor will veto it? Of course the Governor is going to veto it, but let’s take one step at a time….For right now we’re looking to pass the bill and when that happens that in itself will be tremendous progress to the marriage equality movement in New Jersey.”

Christie campaigned last month in New Hampshire for GOP Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney who openly opposes gay marriage, but supports ‘partnership agreements.’ The New Hampshire legislature is expected to vote soon whether to repeal a 2009 gay marriage law. Romney recently told a voter there that he supports the repeal effort. “I believe marriage is between a man and a woman,” he told the voter, who turned out to be a gay veteran.

Gusciora says, “There’s a commitment from leadership of both houses to move this early, get this out of the way and continue on with job creating measures in the state.”

Confidence is high within the Democratic Party that there are enough votes to pass the legislation in both houses possibly with bi-partisan support. They hope Republican members will support the bill because they claim (but cannot confirm) that nationally, not one legislator has ever lost a seat after voting “yes” for same-sex marriage.

The proposed measure is permissive in that it doesn’t require churches to perform gay weddings if they are opposed to them. They would not be required to rent out their facilities for such events either.

If the measure passes the legislature and Christie does veto it, it would take 27 Senators and 54 Assembly members to override that veto. That means 3 GOP Senators and 5 GOP Assembly members would have to defy the Republican Governor. Democrats claim to believe that’s not impossible.

New York, Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont are the only six states that currently allow same-sex marriage. It’s also legal in the District of Columbia.

A member of the Garden State’s congressional delegation is also tackling the issue at the federal level.

“When the civil right of marriage equality is fully recognized here in New Jersey, New Jersey’s star will shine a little brighter,” says Representative Rush Holt. “I say, ‘when’ not ‘if.’ This is going to happen. The sooner it happens the sooner we will sweep away this inequality.”

Holt explains what needs to be done by him and his like-minded colleagues in Washington to ensure every state doesn’t have to go through the legislative process. He says, “We have to clear away the so-called ‘Defense of Marriage Act,’ so that marriages will be recognized from state to state to state.”

A statewide poll released late last week revealed that a majority of Garden state residents support the Marriage Equality bill.

Mickey Carroll, the Director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute says gay marriage wins heavy support. He explains, “52 to 42- the first time it’s ever gone over the halfway mark, and up from a negative – last time Quinnipiac did it- 46 to- 49 – in November…however the demographic divisions on the question are quite substantial.”

Carroll says, “Republicans – they’re opposed – 59 to 35 – Democrats are for it – 62 to 33…also, men- yeah, 49 to 44, they’re for gay marriage – women – heavily – 55 to 40 …and when it comes to the question of supporting gay marriage, whites and blacks – white voters for it – 55 to 39 – black voters against it – 51 to 45.”

He points out that, “A lot of supporters say is this a civil rights issue – but black voters apparently think that it’s a moral issue.”

Carroll adds, “When we ask people who go regularly – weekly – to some sort of religious service – 58 to 36 – they oppose gay marriage…people who don’t go regularly- 61 to 33- they’re in favor.”

He says, “Being against it is like being against the sun coming up in the east – the numbers are for it – and if you’re against it – perfectly fine moral decision if you feel like it – the Quinnipiac numbers say that you’re on the losing side…it’s a big issue in New Jersey – the democrats are going to make it a big issue- Governor Christie is being a little bit more ambiguous than the past -we’ll see what happens.”

On related issues, New Jersey voter opinions are 65 – 32 percent that same-sex marriage is not a threat to traditional marriage; 53 – 45 percent that denying same-sex marriage is discrimination; 69 – 26 percent support for New Jersey’s same-sex civil union law; 66 – 29 percent support allowing same-sex couples to adopt children.

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