The New Jersey Assembly passed the marriage equality bill Thursday, promising to intensify the standoff with Governor Chris Christie, who has vowed to veto the measure.
The New Jersey Assembly passed the Marriage Equality and Religious Exemption Act for the first time on Thursday afternoon in a 42-33 vote. The historic passage, following Senate approval on Monday, turns the spotlight to Governor Chris Christie, who has vowed to veto the measure once it reaches his desk.
The assembly passed the bill after two hours of debate about aspects of the issue including civil rights, the history of marriage, the state’s civil union law, and the prospect of putting a referendum before voters. A motion to send the bill back to committee failed, 44-31, about an hour into the discussion.
Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, a bill co-sponsor and the first African-American woman to lead her chamber, called marriage equality “clearly a constitutional issue of equal access under the law,” in a floor speech that compared the issue at hand to interracial marriage bans of the past.
“The existing civil union law sends the same message to the public that we heard from Jim Crow segregation laws – that same-sex couples and their families are not equal to married couples in the eyes of the law,” said Oliver in a statement after the vote. “This legislation would provide everyone in this state – everyone – with the same respect and protections under the law. It eliminates the second-class citizenship status that same-sex couples presently face while protecting freedom of religion. These principles are part of the bedrock of our constitution and should not be dismissed summarily.”
The group of nine co-sponsors also included the chamber’s two openly gay assemblymembers, Reed Gusciora and Tim Eustace.
The Senate passed the bill for the first on Tuesday in a bipartisan 24-16 vote. Two Republicans supported the bill. The bill failed in a 20-14 vote in the Senate in 2010, but this year, leaders in the Democratic-controlled Senate and Assembly made the bill their first priority.
Senate President Steve Sweeney, who abstained from the vote two years ago but championed the legislation this session, issued a statement that congratulated the Assembly and shifted the focus toward the governor.
"Marriage equality will happen in New Jersey,” he said. “The only question that remains is whether Governor Christie will be on the right or wrong side of history."
The bill now heads to Christie, who as recently as Tuesday promised “very swift action” to veto it. Pressure is likely to mount on the Republican governor from opponents and advocates, with national momentum building for marriage equality, as evidenced by last week's Prop. 8 ruling from a federal appeals court, a pending vote in the Maryland legislature, and the signing of the new law in Washington State this week. Washington governor Christine Gregoire, like Christie a Catholic, told The Advocate that she sent him a letter last month about her evolution on the issue and planned to reach out again after the New Jersey legislature passed the bill.
Evan Wolfson, founder and president of Freedom To Marry, one of the groups that worked to pass the bill, released a statement after the vote that criticized the governor for his stance.
“Sadly, Governor Chris Christie has planted his feet on the wrong side of history, and the wrong side of the majority for marriage in New Jersey and nationwide,” he said. “If the governor sticks with his threat of a veto, Freedom to Marry will work throughout the entire remainder of the legislative session, supporting local families, leaders, and advocates as they make the case and win the extra handful of votes needed to override the veto and do right by these families.”
Christie, a Mitt Romney surrogate widely considered a vice presidential prospect, prefers the civil unions law and wants the Democratic-controlled legislature to send marriage equality for voters’ consideration in a referendum this fall. A recent poll shows that a majority of voters support same-sex marriage and want to have a vote on the issue.
Legislative leaders have strongly opposed the referendum suggestion, saying that civil rights should not be put to a vote. They have engaged in an escalating war of words with the governor since Christie suggested last month that civil rights leaders in the South “would have been happy” to have a referendum in the 1950s and ‘60s.
Should Christie reject the legislation as promised, lawmakers could attempt to override his veto, but it remains unclear whether they can muster enough Republican support to bypass the governor with two-thirds majorities in each chamber. Based on the vote tallies this week, another three votes would be needed to reach the threshold of 27 in the 40-member Senate, and 12 votes would be needed to reach the threshold of 54 in the 80-member Assembly.
Marriage equality advocates, who also have a lawsuit moving through state court, note that the current legislative session ends in January 2014, giving them ample time to prepare and attempt a veto override. A statement from Garden State Equality, the statewide LGBT advocacy group, said that “the legislature has brought us to the edge of the promised land” by passing the marriage equality bill.
"We are exuberant advocates but also methodical strategists,” said the group’s chairman, Steven Goldstein. “To win an override, we will take the time we need, assisted by a changing world. Look how the world changed since the last vote two years ago. We have until the end of the legislative session, January 2014. The key is winning.”