New Jersey state Senate President Steve Sweeney and LGBT advocates repeated their opposition to putting marriage equality on the ballot for voters to decide following the introduction of legislation from Assemblyman Reed Gusciora, the state’s first openly gay lawmaker.
Gusciora introduced the measure Monday to place marriage equality on the ballot in November 2013. He said that although he believes civil rights issues should not be put to a public vote, the state was at a “cross-road” because Governor Chris Christie vetoed legislation passed by the Democratic-controlled legislature this year. The Republican governor insisted the voters should decide the issue in a referendum.
"While I firmly believe civil rights issues are not appropriate for the ballot, we are at a cross-road where the Governor refuses to sign legislation duly passed by both the Assembly and Senate," he said, according to Politicker NJ. "Moreover, absent resolution from either the U.S. or State Supreme Court, the ballot initiative is the only alternative at this point. There are still committed persons in loving relationships, raising families and paying taxes that are being denied the right to marry."
Gusciora said he felt “encouraged” by the recent referendum victories in Maine, Maryland, and Washington. He said the primary purpose of his legislation was to continue the “dialogue” around an issue that includes the legislative front, a lawsuit pending in state supreme court, and the ongoing debate about the referendum. His bill has bipartisan support from Republican Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi.
"I completely respect the older established gay organizations that are willing to let the status quo stand," he said. "But this is really about the next generation, the college age and younger gays who are confident that they have the support and encouragement of their peers. This is really about them."
Recent polls have consistently shown that New Jersey voters support marriage equality and want the opportunity to vote on the issue. Last week, a survey from Public Policy Polling found voters favor marriage equality by 53% to 36%, and 72% of them want a referendum.
Earlier this year, legislative leaders denounced Christie’s referendum proposal and vowed to secure enough Republican votes to override his veto. Lawmakers have until the end of the current session in January 2014.
Senate President Steve Sweeney repeated his opposition to a referendum Tuesday, the Star-Ledger reported. He and Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver decide which bills come up for votes, and Gusciora’s proposal would need to clear both houses.
"I have firmly stated before and will say again now that I do not believe you put civil rights on the ballot, period," he said. "It is the job of elected officials to ensure that everyone is provided equal protection and equal rights under the law. We should not hide from that responsibility. We should embrace it."
Speaker Oliver sounded less inclined to close the door on one of her own members, telling the Star-Ledger there was "no activity scheduled on the bill" but "Assemblyman Gusciora’s input will of course be taken into consideration as the legislative process unfolds relative to the issue of marriage equality ... His thoughts and ideas are always welcome."
The coalition of organizations working to pass marriage equality legislation rallied around Sweeney in a statement Wednesday. Freedom to Marry, the Human Rights Campaign and Garden State Equality said that despite the “milestones” at the ballot box this year, “ballot measures to determine equal protection are offensive to the rights of minorities and hold unspeakable potential for divisiveness.”
“Moving forward, we will continue to push for state legislative action as the right course for affirming the right of same-sex couples to marry,” said the joint statement. “Our organizations will work together, as we have before, to end marriage discrimination in New Jersey and to provide emotional, financial and legal security to same-sex couples and their families at last.”