BY TOM HESTER SR.
State Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) announced today that the Democratic-controlled Legislature will not consider moving legislation that would allow voters to decide through a ballot referendum is same-sex marriage should be legalized in New Jersey.
As the climax to a lengthy public hearing, the Democratic-controlled Assembly Judiciary Committee late Thursday afternoon voted 5 to 2 along party lines in favor of a bill to legalize same-sex marriage.
The senator said the full Senate will vote on Feb. 13.
"It's time for everyone, from the governor to the chattering observers, to stop talking about a marriage equality referendum in terms of 'if,'” Sweeney said “There will be no referendum on marriage equality in New Jersey, period."
Christie has vowed to veto the legislation when it reaches his desk. The governor argues that voters should decide the issue on the November ballot.
"Someone once said that 'the rule for effective government is simple: When you see a problem, you fix it,”' Sweeney said. “Unfortunately, the governor is failing to live up to his own words. 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.
"Real leaders take action,” the senator added. “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.”
Sweeney spoke of the Democrats’ position as the Democratic-controlled Assembly Judiciary Committee holds a lengthy hearing on the issue. The hearing is part of the Democrats’ effort to quickly approve the bill (A-1/S-1), which it has made the top priority for the new session.
Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-Mercer), the lead lower house sponsor of the legislation, told the committee, “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. 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.”
The bill, entitled the Marriage Equality and Religious Exemption Act, would eliminate the state’s civil union law that have been in place since 2007 and instead define marriage as the legally recognized union of two consenting people in a committed relationship.
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.
Presently, six states and the District of Columbia, together comprising 35 million Americans, allow same-sex couples to marry.
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 U.S. Constitution.
“As expected, this legislation has inspired passionate debate,” Gusciora said. “But it’s important to keep in mind that this bill is also about religious freedom – the right for religious institutions to exercise their own beliefs and the right for individuals to not have anyone else’s religious beliefs imposed on them. In creating true marriage equality, ultimately this law affirms two basic principles of our constitution – the right to equal protection under the law and to exercise religious freedom.”
The measure also includes a 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.
Under the bill, 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.
The measure would take effect on the 60th day following enactment.
Assembly Speaker Sheila Y. Oliver (D-Essex) told the committee, “All the evidence has shown us that New Jersey’s civil union law falls far short in providing true equality. 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,” Oliver said. “This is the same message we heard from Jim Crow segregation laws. Separate treatment was wrong then. Separate treatment is wrong now. That’s why this bill is so important, and that’s why those of us elected to protect civil rights must stand up and do the right thing and support it.”
Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex) also appeared before the committee and agreed with Oliver that the civil union law does not offer same-sex couples equal protections.
“We’ve repeatedly heard heartbreaking stories of couples in committed relationships running into problems when it comes to hospital care and other considerations given to heterosexual couples,” Wisniewski said. “We cannot single out a group of people and deem them undeserving of the same legal and economic protections others enjoy.”
Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen), a co-sponsor of the legislation, said, “One year ago, Governor Christie signed the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights, one of the toughest anti-bullying laws in the country. I certainly remember the articulate and brave young men and women who shared their horrific experiences with the Legislature. Many of those students were targeted because of their sexual orientation. It became clear that while bullying affects all students, those who identify as gay or are perceived to be gay are disproportionately impacted by peer harassment and intimidation.
“The purpose of the anti-bullying law is to respond to bullying and also to prevent it,” Vainieri Huttle said. “That can only be done by teaching students that although they are not all the same, they are all equal and will be treated equally in our state.
“Unfortunately, that is not true,” the Assemblywoman said. “LGBT students, as well as their peers, know that when it is time to get married in our state, they will not be treated equally. They will not be treated fairly. New Jersey schools are tasked with teaching students that discrimination against their fellow classmates is wrong and punishable. It is undoubtedly more difficult to impress the values of fairness and equality upon our children when our state does not allow same sex couples to marry.”