New Jersey Democrats Fast Track Marriage Equality



Democratic leaders in the New Jersey legislature said Monday that they planned to introduce marriage equality legislation this week and would make the push in the Senate and Assembly their top priority. The announcement appeared to position the legislature for a showdown with Gov. Chris Christie, who has promised to veto any such measure, and the dynamics of their confrontation could signal a louder national conversation around marriage equality during a presidential election year.

The leaders announced their intentions at an afternoon news conference in Trenton, where the new legislative session will begin tomorrow. The bill, known as the “Freedom of Religion and Equality in Civil Marriage Act,” will be introduced Tuesday with the symbolic designation of S-1 to indicate its status as the first order of business. Senate president Steve Sweeney, Majority Leader-Elect Loretta Weinberg, and Sen. Raymond Lesniak will serve as prime sponsors.

The support from Senator Sweeney marks a significant new advantage for the legislation, according to advocates. He declined to vote on the measure in 2010 when it failed by a 20-14, and has since called his abstention the biggest regret of his political career. Then governor Jon Corzine had promised to sign the bill if it reached his desk.

“This is about doing what’s right and ensuring full equal and civil rights for all New Jerseyans,” said Sweeney. “Two years ago, I made a mistake in abstaining on marriage equality — a mistake that means same-sex couples continue to be denied the very basic civil right to live their lives as they wish. But today isn’t about me correcting my mistake, it’s about correcting a mistake for thousands of loving couples across the state who want nothing more than to be treated equally as their neighbors.”

A statement from Sweeney’s office said that he anticipated bipartisan support for the legislation. He plans to direct the judiciary committee to put the bill on an expedited hearing schedule so the full Senate can take up the measure as soon as possible.

Leaders also plan to fast-track the measure in the Assembly, where the bill will be known as A-1. Assembly speaker Sheila Oliver, the first African-American woman to lead that chamber, pledged to move the bill in a statement that compared the lack of equal marriage recognition to racial segregation.

“This is the same wrong message we heard from segregation laws,” she said. “Separate treatment was wrong then. And separate treatment is wrong now. That’s why I am committed this session to posting marriage equality legislation and making its passage a priority as soon as possible.”

If sponsors succeed in passing the bill this session, they face the prospect of a veto by Governor Christie, a popular Republican with a national profile. It is unclear whether the legislature would be able to muster the two-thirds majority required to override his veto.

Christie, who will deliver his annual State of the State address Tuesday, has not yet committed on the legislation, but Senator Sweeney expressed hope that the first-time executive would refrain from vetoing any measure that reaches his desk.

“If the governor cannot raise himself by signing a law to ensure a basic civil right for all residents, we would hope that he would not lower himself by vetoing it,” said Sweeney.

Assembly member Reed Gusciora, the first openly gay member of the legislature, who will carry the bill in his chamber, spoke bluntly to national politics in his statement. Governor Christie has been traveling to early-voting states on behalf of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who supports a federal constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriages.

“In recent months, Governor Christie has been to four out of the six states that recognize same-sex marriages: Iowa, New Hampshire, New York and Massachusetts,” said Gusciora. “Moreover, when he visits Washington DC he is in a city that also recognizes such relationships. And in none of these places, has he seen any diminishment of the institution of marriage other than perhaps when he is in the presence of Newt Gingrich.”

Depending on when the bill passes and whether or not a potential veto can be overcome, New Jersey, with its population of 9 million, could become the seventh state in the nation to enact marriage equality, following its neighbor New York. Last week Washington governor Chris Gregoire announced her intention to prioritize marriage equality legislation this session, and Gov. Martin O’Malley of Maryland has also promised to push for a bill this year.

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