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N.J. Assembly Panel Advances Marriage Bill

N.J. Assembly Panel Advances Marriage Bill


The New Jersey Assembly Judiciary Committee approved the marriage equality bill in a vote Thursday afternoon, promising to escalate the standoff between Democratic lawmakers and Republican governor Chris Christie, who has vowed to veto the legislation.

In its first-ever hearing in the Assembly, the Marriage Equality and Religious Exemption Act bill passed the panel Thursday afternoon in an 5-2 party line vote, moving one significant step closer to reaching the desk of Governor Chris Christie, who has promised to veto the legislation and wants lawmakers to put the issue to a referendum.

The bill now moves to a floor vote, with the earliest possible date being February 16, according to a spokesman for Assembly speaker Sheila Oliver, a cosponsor of the measure. The Senate, which approved the bill last week in an 8-4 party-line vote, is expected to vote on the bill February 13. Leaders in both houses believe they have enough votes to pass the bill, but it remains unclear whether they can secure enough bipartisan support to override the Republican governor's pledged veto.

Senate president Stephen Sweeney, who has prioritized the marriage equality bill this session, did not testify Thursday but issued a statement that reiterated his opposition to a referendum. He urged the governor and lawmakers to follow the latest example of Republican senators in Washington, who voted for legislation that passed Wednesday night and put the state on track to become the seventh with marriage equality.

"It's time for everyone, from the governor to the chattering observers, to stop talking about a marriage equality referendum in terms of 'if.' There will be no referendum on marriage equality in New Jersey, period," said Sweeney. "He and some of his colleagues could stand to learn from Washington State, where yesterday the Senate passed marriage equality. They did it with the votes of four Republican Senators who stood up for justice and equality, rather than simply shrug off their responsibility as legislators to act."

Governor Christie said Thursday that he believed New Jersey voters would approve marriage equality in a referendum. A recent Quinnipiac University poll showed that voters support the move 52% to 42%.

"The polls that I've seen show that if this goes to the ballot, I lose," the governor said at a town hall, according to Bloomberg. "How much more magnanimous could I be?"

During the Assembly hearing, dozens of lawmakers, advocates, family members including the cousin of Tyler Clementi, and opponents of the bill testified in three-minute remarks over more than six hours. As with the testimony in the Senate Judiciary Committee last week, many supporters focused on the inadequacies of the civil union law enacted in 2006, with arguments that echoed the findings of a state commission report in 2009. Speakers said that despite having one of the most advanced sets of LGBT rights legislation, including an antibullying law described as the nation's toughest, New Jersey is falling behind six states including nearby New York, in addition to Washington, D.C., which together make marriage equality available to 35 million Americans.

Assemblyman Timothy Eustace, a gay freshman lawmaker with a partner of 31 years, talked about losing their son to AIDS in 1990 with no legal status for their family. More recently, he said, it was "humiliating and embarrassing and frustrating" to explain their relationship to hospital staff when his partner needed open-heart surgery. A former mayor of Maywood, he said, "I had to explain to the people that I was performing those ceremonies to that they had certain rights that I was not entitled to."

Compared to the senate hearing, a large amount of testimony in the assembly came from practicing Catholics who support marriage equality and spoke about their gay relatives. Jennifer Ehrentraut-Segro, the cousin of Rutgers student Tyler Clementi, spoke tearfully about the pain at her Catholic wedding because of the absence of her family member, who took his own life in 2010 after he reported being bullied by his roommate. Noting that Governor Christie, a Catholic, recognized the tragedy of the suicide, she implored lawmakers to consider the "ripple effects" of their vote.

"Aside from everything that we're hearing today, there are generations of LGBT youth that haven't yet found their voice and are already being denied their right to marry the one they may love," she said.

Opponents insisted that the civil union law works, and argued that the bill's strict religious exemptions for clergy members and institutions, modeled on the New York law that passed last summer, would not offer enough protections. Moshe Bressler, who testified against the bill in the senate last week, repeated his warning that, "The road to hell is paved with religious exemptions."

The Orthodox Jewish rabbi also said he had spoken with Ruth Shelton, a town clerk in Granby, New York who resigned her position rather than sign same-sex marriage certificates. Bressler said that he could foresee a similar controversy erupting in New Jersey. Conservative Christian legal and the National Organization for Marriage have rallied to the defense of Shelton and a handful of other clerks.

"By signing a civil same-gender marriage certificate, you are going against the word of God," he said.

Other speakers in support of marriage equality criticized the referendum possibility, which Governor Christie suggested on the same day of the senate committee hearing last week. His comment that civil rights activists in the South "would have been happy" with a public vote sparked outrage from Democratic state lawmakers and African-American elected officials including Congressman John Lewis of Georgia and Newark Mayor Cory Booker. The governor has since clarified the remark, saying, "They wished they would have had the option, but the political climate did not permit it, meaning they would not win."

Jay Lassiter, a progressive New Jersey activist, said that a referendum should only be allowed if voters also are asked their feelings about divorce. Noting that he and his partner have been together "4,000 times longer than the Kardashian marriage," he demanded to know why it is so easy for straight couples to get a divorce and remarry.

Assemblyman Reed Gusciora, an openly gay sponsor of the bill, warned that a referendum would amplify the already ugly dialogue in the state. Earlier this week, Governor Christie called the lawmaker "numbnuts" for comparing him to the segregationists Lestor Maddox and George Wallace because of the referendum suggestion.

"There'll be more divisiveness in this state, there'll be more acrimony, and it will be a race to who can shout the loudest," said Gusciora, moments before taking a shot at Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, "the darling of social conservatives," who has been married three times.

The two Republican members of the judiciary committee voted no on the bill. Assemblymember Holly Schepisi, who took office last month, sounded torn at points, however, making reference to her own Catholic-Jewish marriage and saying that she "unfortunately" had heard from few backers of the bill compared to opponents.

Assemblymember Michael Patrick Carroll left no ambiguity about where he stood.

"I am not persuaded that society will reap any benefit from such definitional change," he said. "Marriage is a three-party contract: husband, wife and society."

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