Gay marriage politics keep evolving in New Jersey

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Gov._Chris_Christie

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

New Jersey’s first openly gay state lawmaker is proposing a ballot measure for voters to decide whether the state should recognize same-sex marriage – a suggestion similar to the one gay-marriage opponent Gov. Chris Christie made less than a year ago.

At the time, Assemblyman Reed Gusciora opposed the governor’s suggestion and compared him to segregationists of earlier decades who wanted civil rights issues decided by majority vote. For that, Christie called the lawmaker “numb nuts.” 

But now Gusciora has changed his mind, emboldened by November elections when voters in Maine, Maryland and Washington state approved same-sex marriage and Minnesota voters defeated a state constitutional amendment to ban it.

Gusciora says the state legislature might not be able to get a gay marriage bill past “the bully-in-chief” governor and the courts may not rule favorably for gay rights advocates. He says a popular vote on legalizing gay marriage is not his top choice, but it is worth a try if marriage rights cannot be won otherwise.

“At this point, we have no other choice,” Gusciora said.

The lawmaker’s 180-degree turn on that point in the gay marriage debate reflects the shifting politics surrounding the issue in New Jersey.

Social conservatives who oppose legal status for gay couples are now among the most ardent defenders of New Jersey’s civil-union law. The state Senate president, who played a key role in blocking a bill to allow same-sex nuptials three years ago, is now among its biggest supporters.

Advocates of gay rights differ on how best to gain legal status for same-sex marriage. All three routes – by the Legislature, courts, or voters – face roadblocks.

New Jersey was among the first in the nation to grant legal status to gay couples when it authorized civil unions in 2006, but the state remains in the majority where gay marriage has no legal standing.

In February, the state legislature passed a law to allow same-sex marriage. But Christie promptly vetoed it. Supporters have until January 2014 to override his veto with a two-thirds majority of each chamber. That would mean persuading at least 14 lawmakers to change their minds – 11 in the Assembly and three in the Senate – and convincing Republicans to break with Christie. Supporters believe they have the votes if lawmakers would vote their conscience instead of following Christie’s directives.

On the court front, it’s not clear when the issue might again come before the state Supreme Court. In 2006, the court unanimously found that same-sex couples had to be afforded the same rights as married couples, but then voted 4-3 against requiring that gay couples be allowed to marry. Lawmakers responded by creating civil unions, which offer all the legal benefits of marriage, but not the name.

In 2011, seven same-sex couples in New Jersey and many of their children filed a lawsuit asking the state courts to force the state to recognize gay marriages. They said civil unions do not satisfy the mandate of the high court’s 2006 ruling.

The case is pending but, as it stands now, Christie has made one appointment to the state Supreme Court and nominated two others so jurists might see things differently than they did six years ago. Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to take up two gay marriage-related cases in 2013 and its decision could affect New Jersey and every other state.

Gusciora said voters may well approve a law; polls have shown it has support in New Jersey. And by having it on the ballot in 2013, it may force Christie to talk about social issues and may draw more young liberals into the Democratic campaigns.

“Gay groups have been saying that the majority of voters in New Jersey favor marriage equality,” he said. “Indeed, let’s make that demonstration.”

Evan Wolfson, president and founder of national gay-rights group Freedom to Marry, doesn’t agree that a ballot question is the way to go. He said that of the four states that had ballot measures in November, only Maine’s question made it to the ballot on a campaign by gay rights supporters.

Wolfson said a campaign is a “very expensive, difficult, divisive process that no state should wish upon itself.” More importantly, civil rights should not be determined by a majority vote, he said.

“It’s no more a good idea to put these couples’ freedom to marry up to a majority vote than it was to put a woman’s right up to vote” in 1915, when it was defeated, Wolfson said.

Steven Goldstein, the chair of the Garden State Equality gay rights group, said he respects Gusciora and understands his frustration but should wait to exhaust other options.

“I think he is a year too early,” he said.

Goldstein said the possibility of a public vote has already taken some momentum away from efforts to get lawmakers who voted against allowing gay marriage in 2012 to support a veto override in 2013. A ballot measure, he said, should only be attempted if an override fails.

State Senate President Stephen Sweeney, who abstained from a vote on allowing same-sex marriage in 2010, helping kill the measure, came to regret the decision. And he says he will stop a ballot measure from moving forward.

Brian Brown, executive director of the National Organization for Marriage, which opposes gay marriage, says he agrees with Gusciora about having a vote. He says the civil rights that would be trampled by lawmakers or judges allowing gay marriage would be those of the people who oppose it.

“A lot of people are tired of the grandstanding,” he said. “If you want to keep making this an issue, let the people vote on it.”

Len Deo, president Of New Jersey Family Policy Council, also favors a popular vote but on a measure to ban same-sex marriage, not allow it.