One day before the New Jersey Legislature is sworn in and Gov. Chris Christie delivers his State of the State address, leaders of the state Senate and Assembly have announced that they are not only introducing but fast-tracking a bill designed to offer marriage rights to same-sex couples in that state.
The House and Senate bills (respectively numbered A. 1 and S. 1) are expected to be taken up early this year. According to same-sex marriage advocacy organization, Freedom to Marry, “the numbering of the bills reflects the importance which the legislative leaders are giving to the effort.”
The legislative leaders who were scheduled to participate in a Tuesday press conference included Senate President Steve Sweeney, incoming Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, incoming Assembly Majority Leader Lou Greenwald, and state Democratic Chairman Assemblyman John Wisniewski.
With Democratic leadership unified in calling for the law’s passage, the bill will likely fare better in the legislature than the 2010 attempt to convert civil unions into same-sex marriage rights for both same-sex and opposite-sex couples. Both houses will have to secure a two-thirds super-majority to overcome a promised veto by Christie, according to the Star-Ledger.
In 2009, in the waning days of the administration of marriage supporter Gov. Jon Corzine, the New Jersey Legislature debated and killed a bill that would have legalized same-sex marriage.
“The days are over when marriage equality was the third rail of American politics,” Garden State Equality chair Steven Goldstein said in a statement. “Today, in a state and nation that supports marriage equality, not standing up for equality is the third rail for prejudice.”
In 2006, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Lewis v. Harris that same-sex couples must be provided all the same rights as opposite-sex married couples. The high court, however, left the means of doing so up to the legislature. Rather than make marriage gender-neutral, as Massachusetts had, the New Jersey Legislature passed the Civil Union Act in December 2006, offering same-sex couples the same state-level benefits as opposite-sex married couples.
Following its passage, the state commissioned a study on the effectiveness of the law. The 2008 New Jersey Civil Union Commission concluded there was “overwhelming evidence that civil unions will not be recognized by the general public as the equivalent of marriage in New Jersey with the passage of time.” It unanimously recommended enacting marriage in the place of civil unions.
The commission discovered some businesses and institutions that offered insurance and other benefits to opposite-sex spouses of married employees were slow to offer those same benefits to same-sex spouses of those employees in civil unions. According to Garden State Equality, by the end of July 2007, 1 out of 7 couples who had entered into New Jersey civil unions had reported that their employers refused to recognize their civil unions, including DHL, FedEx and UPS, the last of which claimed their contract with the Teamsters Union prevented them from offering the benefits since the civil unions law did not explicitly designate partners entering into the unions as ‘spouses.’
“What New Jersey’s legislative leaders are telling us clearly today is that the Garden State values its gay and lesbian citizens fully, and does not accept treating same-sex couples and their families as second class citizens, as it presently does with civil unions,” said Freedom to Marry campaign director Marc Solomon. “Marriage matters for same-sex couples and their families, both because it says we’re a family through thick and thin in a way that nothing else does, and because it provides a critical safety-net of protections that civil unions do not.”
In July, Lambda Legal filed suit in New Jersey court on behalf of Garden State Equality and seven families headed by same-sex couples stating that the civil unions law violates not only the New Jersey Constitution but the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution as well.
“We believe in all roads to justice,” Goldstein said on Tuesday. “Whether through the legislature or the courts, however we can win equality, we will.”
Upon the announcement of the bill’s introduction, the entire New Jersey Democratic delegation to the United States Congress signed a joint letter urging their colleagues in the New Jersey state legislature to pass the marriage bill.
Full text of letter from New Jersey Democratic delegation to the United States congress:
Dear Democratic Colleagues in the New Jersey Senate and Assembly:
We, the entire Democratic membership of the New Jersey Congressional delegation, urge you to support the marriage equality bill being introduced by the Democratic leadership in the state Senate and Assembly, along with many sponsors.
New Jersey has a proud history of civil rights leadership, and we must continue our role in pursuing fairness and equality. Other states with a combined population of more than 35 million people already have marriage equality – including our next door neighbor, New York.
Although New Jersey has a civil union law, ample testimony before the New Jersey Senate Judiciary Committee two years ago demonstrated that the civil union law has not successfully provided equality to same-sec couples in New Jersey. Couples testified that hospitals still refuse visitation and medical-decision rights because they do not consider civil unions to be equal to marriage. Similarly, couples demonstrated that employers continue to refuse to grant equal benefits to civil union partners.
As more states recognize marriage equality, civil unions threaten to become an even less respected and understood alternative to marriage. The 2008 New Jersey Civil Union Review Commission concluded there was “overwhelming evidence that civil unions will not be recognized by the general public as the equivalent of marriage in New Jersey with the passage of time.”
It is important to note that New Jersey enacted the strongest possible civil union law in 2006. Therefore, it is not feasible to “fix” the law short of providing marriage equality. The time has come to end discrimination in marriage. The marriage equality bill in the New Jersey legislature needs your support.
Frank R. Laurenberg, United States Senator
Robert Menendez, United States Senator
Rush Holt, Member of Congress
Robert Andrews, Member of Congress
Albio Sires, Member of Congress
Steven Rothman, Member of Congress
Bill Pascrell, Member of Congress
Frank Pallone, Jr., Member of Congress
Donals Payne, Member of Congress