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Clock is ticking for N.J. marriage bill

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The only out lawmaker in the New Jersey Legislature said the state’s pending marriage legislation “could go either way” and cautioned against bringing the bill to a vote if supporters don’t think they have sufficient support.

Reed Gusciora, a gay Democrat and sponsor of the marriage bill in the Assembly, said in an interview with DC Agenda that prospects of passing the legislation dimmed after Gov. Jon Corzine (D) failed in his bid for re-election last month and following losses for same-sex marriage in Maine and New York.

“It could go either way,” he said. “A lot of legislators, unfortunately, are taking a second look at the issue. … There’s always an argument not to do it and to fall in line with these other states.”

Even so, Gusciora, who’s also deputy majority leader of the Assembly, said New Jersey has a chance of passing same-sex marriage because of the Garden State’s liberal leanings.

“It still has a shot because New Jersey, at the end of the day, is a fairly progressive state,” he said. “It’s just a matter of my colleagues voting for the bill, which otherwise they should have.”

Supporters of gay nuptials are under the gun to pass same-sex marriage. Corzine has said he’d sign marriage legislation if it reaches his desk, but his failure to win re-election means he’ll soon leave the governor’s mansion. On Jan. 19, his successor, Republican Chris Christie will take office, and he’s pledged to veto any same-sex marriage bill that passes the legislature.

On Monday, Christie reiterated his opposition to the marriage bill in response to criticism from rock star and New Jersey-native Bruce Springsteen, according to Newark’s Star-Ledger, although Christie’s opposition wasn’t as emphatic as it has been in the past.

“This is where the people of New Jersey obviously have differences of opinion,” Christie was quoted as saying. “There are lots of people who feel very strongly about same-sex marriage and believe it should be the law of the state, and there are lots of folks like me who believe that it shouldn’t.”

Steven Goldstein, chair of Garden State Equality, declined to describe his organization’s efforts to pass the marriage legislation in the weeks before Christie takes office, saying he didn’t want to tip off opponents to his activities.

“I can inform your audience, which is mostly outside of New Jersey, or I could do what we’re doing, which is continue to work hard to win marriage equality and keep our strategy close to the vest, and that’s what I prefer to do,” he said.

Still, he said he would agree with Gusciora’s assessment that the marriage bill “could go either way,” calling it “an innocuous enough statement.”

“That can be interpreted as anything, so why not agree?” he said.

Gusciora said he thinks the legislature will take up the marriage bill in January when lawmakers return from the holiday recess. He noted that he’s expecting the Assembly to consider the legislation first, followed by action in the Senate.

The State Senate Judiciary Committee last week approved the marriage legislation, 7-6. A Senate floor vote on the bill was initially scheduled for last week, but postponed after supporters said they wanted to wait until the Assembly had public hearings.

Mike BeLoreto, Gusciora’s chief of staff, said he thinks the bill has “a good chance” of passing the Assembly, but in the Senate the situation is “still very close to call.”

“We obviously have more Democratic votes in the Assembly than they do in the Senate, so it gives us a wider margin if some members need to jump off for their own political or personal reasons,” BeLoreto said.

As for the Senate, BeLoreto said a favorable vote in the Assembly “will end up spurring some progress on the Senate side.”

Democrats hold a majority in the State Senate, 23-17. Senate President Richard Codey has said the bill lacks unanimous support among the Democratic caucus and Republican votes are needed to pass the legislation.

Charles Moran, a Log Cabin Republicans spokesperson, said his organization isn’t formally lobbying for the marriage bill because his group doesn’t have a chapter in New Jersey.

Nonetheless, he said he plans to send out an action alert to his group’s members in the state to encourage them to lobby their officials.

“We’re going to start sending out some blasts to all our internal lists of Republicans and say, ‘Contact these state senators and identify yourself as a Republican in support marriage equality,’” he said.

Moran said his group has identified five Senate Republicans that could vote to pass the bill. One is Bill Baroni, the Republican Judiciary Committee member who voted in favor of the legislation, and another is Jennifer Beck, who voted against the legislation in committee but said she’d consider voting for it on the Senate floor.

Gusciora said the bill should be enacted into law as a matter of fairness.

“We recognize Newt Gingrich’s three wives, Rudy Giuliani’s three wives and Britney Spears’ 72 hours of nuptials — and there are plenty of same-sex couples that have been together a lot longer,” Gusciora said. “They pay taxes like everyone else, they raise families, they’re allowed to adopt in this state, so it’s a matter of fairness.”

Still, Gusciora urged advocates not to hold a vote on the bill if support is uncertain.

The wide margin of failure of the marriage bill in the New York State Senate earlier this month, 24-38, spurred some people to question why a vote was taken if there wasn’t an assurance of greater support.

“I’m not into taking names,” Gusciora said. “We already know who’s against it, so I don’t think we have to take the vote. The other thing is that if there isn’t a vote, there’s always an opportunity to revisit the issue, so I would rather us not take the vote.”

Gusciora said the New Jersey state courts could take up the matter should lawmakers fail to act. While no marriage litigation is pending in New Jersey, Gusciora noted that someone could bring the issue before judges.

In 2006, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that the legislature needed to create some form of relationship recognition for same-sex couples in New Jersey. In response, civil unions were enacted.

“[You] wouldn’t want conservatives to get to say, ‘You had your shot in the legislature, so why are you taking it to the courts?’” Gusciora said. “The court can always revisit the issue and say, ‘You didn’t go far enough — it should indeed be called marriage.’”

But if lawmakers fail to approve the marriage legislation before Jan. 19, Gusciora said it would be “unlikely” that same-sex marriage will happen in New Jersey legislatively before Christie leaves office.

“He said that he would veto the bill if it ever came to his desk, so it’s unlikely in the four or eight years he’ll be governor that he would sign it,” he said. “Things always change with everybody, but he was pretty emphatic.”

Goldstein said he didn’t want to comment on whether the marriage bill could pass during the Christie administration if lawmakers in the upcoming weeks don’t approve the legislation.

“We’re working day and night to pass marriage equality while Jon Corzine is governor,” Goldstein said.

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Oklahoma

White House, national groups respond to nonbinary Okla. teenager’s death

Nex Benedict died after reported assault

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Nex Benedict, a 16-year-old nonbinary student from Oklahoma, died on Feb. 8 after a fight at their high school. (Family photo)

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre and national advocacy groups issued statements on Wednesday about the death of nonbinary Oklahoma teenager Nex Benedict after they were allegedly assaulted in a high school restroom.

Benedict died on Feb. 8. According to ABC News, officials investigating the incident said they will be interviewing students and staff “over the next few weeks” and plan to share findings with the Tulsa County District Attorney’s Office.

The victim’s mother told the Independent that Benedict had suffered bullying over their gender since the start of the 2023 school year, shortly after Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt signed a bill to prohibit students from using public school restrooms that do not match the sex listed on their birth certificates.

“Every young person deserves to feel safe and supported at school,” Jean-Pierre said in a post on X. “Our hearts are with Nex Benedict’s family, their friends, and their entire school community in the wake of this horrific tragedy.”

Calling Benedict’s death a “gut-wrenching tragedy that exposes the chilling reality of anti-trans hatred,” Human Rights Campaign President Kelley Robinson said. “We are reaching out to the DOJ, we are encouraging the community to speak out.”

Along with Robinson’s remarks, HRC’s Press Team included a link to the organization’s blog post about Benedict and a statement from Tori Cooper, director of community engagement for the HRC Transgender Justice Initiative:

“Extremist anti-LGBTQ+ hate accounts, like online troll Chaya Raichik, the woman behind ‘Libs of TikTok’, who was recently appointed to Oklahoma’s library advisory board, are perpetuating a vile and hateful narrative that is permitting these types of public attacks,” she wrote.

State schools superintendent Ryan Walters, who last year called transgender youth using public restrooms “an assault on truth” and a danger to other kids, was responsible for naming Raichik to the library media panel.

“The assault on Nex is an inevitable result of the hateful rhetoric and discriminatory legislation targeting Oklahoma trans youth,” Lambda Legal, the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Oklahoma wrote in a joint statement.

“We are deeply troubled by reports the school failed to respond appropriately to the altercation that preceded Nex’s death and demand a thorough, open investigation into the matter,” the groups wrote.

Their statement also notes the organizations’ lawsuit challenging Oklahoma Senate Bill 615, the bathroom bill signed by Stitt last year.

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U.S. Supreme Court

Alito renews criticism of the Supreme Court’s landmark marriage equality ruling

Obergefell decision allowed same-sex couples to marry around the country

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U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito speaks at a conference in D.C. in December 2023 (YouTube screenshot)

Conservative U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito on Tuesday renewed his criticism of the landmark 2015 ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges that established the nationwide constitutional right to same-sex marriage.

His remarks came in a 5-page order that was written in connection with the High Court’s decision not to hear Missouri Department of Corrections v. Jean Finney — a dispute over whether a juror’s position that “homosexuality, according to the Bible, is a sin” can be the basis for striking him from an employment discrimination case that was brought by a lesbian.

The conflict, Alito argued, “exemplifies the danger” he foresaw in the Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage ruling, which was decided by a 5-4 majority with Alito among the justices who dissented.

Specifically, Alito raised concern in his statement that “Americans who do not hide their adherence to traditional religious beliefs about homosexual conduct will be ‘labeled as bigots and treated as such’ by the government.'”

“The opinion of the court in [Obergefell] made it clear that the decision should not be used in that way,” the justice wrote, “but I am afraid that this admonition is not being heeded by our society.”

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Oklahoma

Nonbinary Okla. high school student dies after fight

Nex Benedict passed away Feb. 8

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Nex (Dagny) Benedict, a 16-year-old nonbinary high school student, died from injuries suffered in a physical altercation at Owasso High School on Feb. 7, 2024. (Family photo)

Located in Tulsa County on U.S. Highway 169 six miles north of Tulsa’s city limits, Owasso, which is home to 39,328 people, is grappling with conflict and accusations after Nex Benedict, a 16-year-old Owasso High School sophomore who was nonbinary, died after a physical fight in a restroom at the school.

However, according to school officials there was no notification or staff awareness of the fight until the young student had been taken to hospital and later died. The Owasso Police Department is now investigating the circumstances surrounding the student’s death. 

According to the local newspaper, the Owasso Reporter:

“On Wednesday, Feb. 7, around 3:30 p.m., police were called to Bailey Medical Center by the parent of a 16-year-old Owasso High School student who allegedly had a physical altercation at the campus earlier that day, according to the police report.”

It states that no initial report of the fight was made to police prior to their admission to Bailey, although information was taken by a school resource officer at the hospital.

On the evening of Feb. 8, police were made aware that the student was rushed back to the hospital where they were pronounced dead from a medical episode, the report states.

KJRH in neighboring Tulsa reported that a person knowledgeable of the events leading to the teen’s death, who claimed to be the mother of the victim’s best friend, told the station regarding the teen’s death:

“I think complications from brain trauma, head trauma, is what caused it,” she said.

The woman wouldn’t say the victim’s name but said Benedict was a sophomore. Bailey said the victim was outgoing and loyal once they got comfortable and was not afraid to be outspoken. The woman said three older girls were beating on the victim and her daughter in the girl’s bathroom.

“I know at one point, one of the girls was pretty much repeatedly beating [Benedict] head across the floor,” she said. That’s when [Benedict said] a teacher walked in and broke it up.

“[Benedict] couldn’t walk to the nurses’ station on [Benedict] own, and staff didn’t call the ambulance, which amazes me,” she said.

The woman told KJRH the victim’s grandmother, who [Benedict] primarily lived with, brought [Benedict] to the hospital after the fight. She said the victim was released that evening but was brought back the next day and died.

KJRH reached out multiple times along with other media outlets to Owasso Public Schools. A school district spokesperson responded saying there would be no comment “because this is an active police investigation.”

The Owasso Police Department also declined to comment except for noting investigators still don’t know if the fight was related to the teen’s death or if a separate medical issue was the cause. OPD said they’re waiting on the corner-medical examiner’s report before releasing more information.

Owasso Public Schools released this statement about the student’s death:

“The Owasso Police Department has notified district leaders of the death of an Owasso High School student. The student’s name and cause of death have not yet been made public. As this is an active police investigation, we will have no additional comment at this time. Further inquiries should be directed to the Owasso Police Department.”

“The district will have additional counselors at the school to provide support to students and staff beginning on Friday.”

On Feb. 15, after a service was held at Mowery Funeral Service Chapel, Benedict was buried at Ridgelawn Cemetery in Collinsville.

LGBTQ advocates and others are angered by the death, the misgendering in local media and the fact that the school district, which has been previously targeted by the far-right anti-LGBTQ extremist Libs of TikTok’s creator Chaya Raichik, seems unable to grapple with anti-LGBTQ bullying.

Raichik was named to sit on an Oklahoma committee reviewing school library content by far-right leaning State Superintendent of Schools Ryan Walters.

In 2022, Raichik targeted a now former Owasso 8th grade teacher for speaking out in support of LGBTQ students who lacked acceptance from their parents. That teacher, Tyler Wrynn, was labeled a “groomer” and a predator in social media posts.

According to LGBTQ advocacy groups, Raichik’s endless targeting only seems to encourage more violence against LGBTQ youth. 

Lance Preston, the CEO of the Indianapolis-based Rainbow Youth Project, which has been working to assist queer youth in the state, posted a video expressing his frustration and anger over this death and the other anti-LGBTQ violence.

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