It was standing-room-only at a committee hearing in Trenton yesterday where, after seven hours of testimony the Assembly Judiciary panel approved a bill to legalize gay marriage in New Jersey.

The measure's sponsor says the Assembly doesn't even have the 41 votes needed to pass it right now.

"I think we're right there," explains Assemblyman Reed Gusciora. "Well into the 30s, high 30s are a solid 'yes.' We're working on the undecided……Strangely enough there's probably more that have told us 'undecided' than 'no,' but I think at the end of the day we can get there."

Assembly Democrats will caucus behind closed doors this Monday for some good, old-fashioned arm twisting and cajoling. Asked about that private meeting, Gusciora said, "I think there will be a lot of civility."

The bill has already been approved by a State Senate committee and top Democrats hope both full houses will vote on the measure this month. Governor Chris Christie vows to veto the bill if it passes. He wants voters to decide the issue in a November ballot question. It would take 27 votes in the Senate and 54 votes in the Assembly for a successful override.

State Senate President Steve Sweeney says there will be no ballot question. "It's time for everyone, from the governor to the chattering observers, to stop talking about a marriage equality referendum in terms of 'if,'" says Sweeney. "There will be no referendum on marriage equality in New Jersey, period……Real leaders take action. When the Senate votes on this issue on February 13, it will be a very simple choice: you either support marriage equality, or you don't. There is no third option."

The testimony yesterday was very emotionally charged. 15-year-old Madison Galluccio is the daughter of two gay fathers. Her words brought several Assembly members to tears. She said, "We aren't different. I'm not different and I shouldn't have to be forced to feel like I'm different…..My parents will be married and I will make sure that this happens until the day that I die……Please, will you help me? Help me feel equal."

Opponents of the same-sex marriage bill say the state's current civil union law is sufficient. They also point out that marriage is and always has been the union of one man and one woman. The Governor feels the voters should decide the issue with a November ballot question.

New Jersey Assembly Speaker Sheila Y. Oliver Testimony in Support of Marriage Equality (A-1) from NJ Assembly Democratic Office on Vimeo.

"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 Gusciora. "Why is it that a same-sex couple in another state such as Iowa, New Hampshire, Massachusetts or New York, can be duly married, yet when they cross the border into New Jersey they become civil unionized? A marriage law in New Jersey would make a significant difference in providing equality and dignity to same-sex couples and their children."

"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 legislation also expressly stipulates that no clergy of any religion authorized to solemnize marriage, nor any religious society, institution or organization in the state, would be required to conduct any marriage in violation of their free exercise of religion.

"New Jersey has a civil union law, but all of the evidence has shown us that it falls far short in providing true equality," says Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver. "Civil unions send a message to the public that same-sex couples and their families are not equal to married couples in the eyes of the law. It sends a message that same-sex couples are not good enough to warrant equality. This is the same message we heard from Jim Crow segregation laws. Separate treatment was wrong then. Separate treatment is wrong now."

The bill includes a religious exemption stating that no member of the clergy of any religion authorized to solemnize marriage and no religious society, institution or organization in this state shall be required to solemnize any marriage in violation of the free exercise of religion guaranteed by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. It also includes another religious exemption stating that no religious society, institution or organization in this state serving a particular faith or denomination shall be compelled to provide space, services, advantages, goods or privileges related to the solemnization, celebration or promotion of marriage if such solemnization, celebration or promotion of marriage is in violation of the beliefs of such religious society, institution or organization.

Also, the bill states that no civil claim or cause of action against any religious society, institution or organization, or any employee thereof, shall arise out of any refusal to provide space, services, advantages, goods or privileges.

Partners who have previously established a civil union may apply for a marriage license and would receive the license immediately, without the usual 72-hour waiting period between application for, and issuance of, the license. The usual fees for a marriage license would apply to same sex couples.