January 7, 2010 at 5:27 pm EST | by Chris Johnson
N.J. Senate kills marriage legislation

The New Jersey State Senate on Thursday defeated legislation that would have legalized same-sex marriage in the Garden State, but plans are already brewing to obtain marriage rights for gay couples through litigation.

Senators voted down the measure, 14-20, following a 90-minute debate. After the vote was recorded, opponents of gay nuptials filled the Senate chamber with cheers and applause.

The bill’s failure almost certainly means New Jersey won’t see the legalization of same-sex marriage through legislative means anytime soon. Republican Governor-elect Chris Christie will begin his four-year term Jan. 19, and he’s pledged to veto any marriage bill that comes to his desk.

Outgoing Gov. Jon Corzine (D) in a statement Thursday expressed disappointment about the outcome of the vote, although he commended the Senate for having public debate on the issue.

“Most assuredly, this is an issue of civil rights and civil liberties, the foundation of our state and federal constitutions,” he said. “Denying any group of people a fundamental human right because of who they are, or whom they love, is wrong, plain and simple.”

Celebrating the victory was the National Organization for Marriage. In an e-mail blast, Brian Brown, the organization’s executive director, praised followers who “made phone calls, sent e-mails, and prayed” in opposition to same-sex marriage.

“Yet again, we have witnessed a tremendous victory for marriage in a state where just a few months ago, victory seemed unlikely at best,” he said.

Immediately following the vote, Kevin Cathcart, executive director of Lambda Legal, announced in a statement plans to pursue the legalization of same-sex marriage in New Jersey through court action.

“The requirement to ensure equality for same-sex couples, established by the New Jersey Supreme Court in its decision in our marriage lawsuit in 2006, has not been met,” he said. “There is enormous, heartbreaking evidence that civil unions are not equal to marriage, and we will be going back to the courts in New Jersey to fight for equality.”

New Jersey won’t ‘go all the way backwards’

In a conference call following the vote, Steven Goldstein, chair of Garden State Equality, said advocates of same-sex marriage have had “a seamless transition from our legislative phase to our court phase.”

“It’s not a situation where New Jersey will go all the way backwards,” he said. “In New Jersey, the Supreme Court ruled in 2006 that same-sex couples must receive equal treatment under the law as a state constitutional matter.”

Goldstein said he didn’t yet know details about the litigation, such as who would become plaintiff couples or when the New Jersey Supreme Court would hear the case.

Reflecting on the vote, Goldstein said the marriage bill didn’t succeed for one reason: the failure of Corzine to win re-election in November.

“We had at minimum 22 votes in the Senate … and we were going to win this clearly in the Assembly,” he said. “At some point immediately after the election, we saw the fortunes change.”

Goldstein said Corzine was “a star supporter of marriage equality” throughout most of 2009, but added “it did take him a while to get there.”

“We were very honest in our statement today in saying that this bill should never have waited until sudden death overtime — the lame duck session,” he said. “And obviously we’re disappointed in that.”

Opposition to the bill also increased, Goldstein said, because Christie visited Republican senators before the debate and urged them to vote against the legislation.

“We understand from impeccable sources that Governor-elect Christie went to the Republican Senate caucus and in the Republican Assembly caucus and told members who were going to vote for marriage equality, ‘I don’t want to see any marriage equality votes coming out of this caucus,’” Goldstein said.

Even though they thought they might not win, Goldstein said advocates held the vote in the Senate because they believed it would bolster the chances of litigation.

“We consulted and spoke with lawyers far and wide who said the New Jersey Legislature has to show its dereliction of duty affirmatively to go back to court — because they said it’s up to the Legislature to act,” he said. “Today the Legislature acted. It defaulted on its constitutional obligation to provide same-sex couples equality.”

Noting that a number of lawmakers who voted against the marriage bill also conceded on the floor civil unions aren’t working, Goldstein said the Senate record will also help persuade the courts that civil unions aren’t adequate in providing protections for same-sex couples.

Passionate flare on Senate floor

Several senators gave emotional speeches on both sides of the marriage issue on the Senate floor before the vote was taken. State Sen. Loretta Weinberg, a Democrat and sponsor of the marriage legislation, was among those who spoke in favor of the bill.

“Men and women do not have a monopoly on loving relationships,” she said. “We all know same-sex couples that enjoy the same love and trust that is shared between a man and a woman, between a husband and a wife.”

Also speaking out in favor of the legislation was State Sen. Raymond Lesniak, another Democrat who sponsored the bill.

Noting that 120 religious leaders sent a letter to the New Jersey Senate in support of same-sex marriage, Lesniak said the failure of the chamber to pass the legislation would amount to religious discrimination.

“Unless we vote for marriage equality, we will be interfering with the religious beliefs of many of our citizens,” he said. “Government is wrong to interfere with religious beliefs. Today, we can right that wrong.”

State Sen. Bill Baroni, the lone Republican to vote in favor of the marriage legislation, said New Jersey’s current system of offering civil unions to same-sex couples amounted to discrimination perpetuated by the government.

“Government says [these couples] are different and segregates from the married couples, and that is textbook, old-fashioned discrimination — where government looks at people and discriminates against them,” he said.

Equally emotional were speeches against same-sex marriage. State Sen. Michael Doherty, a Republican, criticized the process that advocates had chosen to legalize same-sex marriage and called instead for a referendum on the issue.

“Suddenly today, you’re somehow crazy if you want the people of New Jersey to decide this issue like they have in 31 other states,” he said. “This is about the process; this is about letting the residents of New Jersey decide a major redefinition that has been recognized for thousands and thousands of years.”

Also opposed to the legislation was State Sen. Sean Kean, another Republican who said he voted against same-sex marriage even though he had “the gayest senate district in New Jersey” because it has a significant number of LGBT residents.

“Guess … to those proponents of this bill that I am unfortunately going to disagree with today,” he said. “Sometimes people just disagree with you. Maybe they don’t share your perspective, maybe they don’t share your values, maybe they just disagree with you.”

One senator who spoke in favor of the marriage bill and gave a particularly well-received speech among advocates was State Sen. Nia Gill. A black woman, Gill compared to lack of marriage rights for gay couples to previous laws forbidding interracial marriage and suffrage for women.

“This body cannot advocate its responsibility,” she said. “Once we have taken state action, that state action must be constitutional in its protection.”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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