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Jon S. Corzine and Richard J. Cody

Marriage loses in NY, advances in NJ, DC

On the marriage front this month, Albany anger turned to Trenton triumph — with a big push from The Boss and a legion of gay and lesbian activists.

Legislation to legalize same-sex marriage did not yet pass in New Jersey, but the bill won critical approval from a senate committee and an instrumental endorsement from the state’s most famous native son, Bruce Springsteen.

The progress came after a defeat in New York. There, the governor had pushed lawmakers to take up same-sex marriage legislation in a special session that began with uncertainty.

The house approved the measure in July with an 89 to 52 vote, then voted again Dec. 1 in favor of the legislation by an 88-51 vote.

The senate voted the bill down Dec. 2. Thirty Republicans and eight Democrats voted against the measure, but only one spoke during the debate watched around the country via the senate’s Web cast.

“That news, after Maine, I felt like I was at a funeral,” said New Yorker and gay rights activist Tony Monsorio.

If the New York defeat played like a funeral dirge, the New Jersey progress — though preliminary — played like a rock anthem.

“I grew up in New York,” said Steven Goldstein, CEO of Garden State Equality, New Jersey’s statewide LGBT group. “The Hudson River might as well be a thousand miles wide. On LGBT rights, New Jersey is a leader.”

Earlier this month, the New Jersey Senate Judiciary Committee took testimony for seven hours on the same-sex marriage bill — and there were many others who wanted to testify but time ran out. Julian Bond, chair of the NAACP, testified that by voting for gay marriage lawmakers would be “standing for right and on the right side of history.”

The committee’s 7-6 vote to send the bill to the senate floor marked the first time New Jersey lawmakers voted on the same-sex marriage issue.

A vote in the senate was expected Dec. 10, and, in anticipation, Garden State Equality organized a lobby day that sent hundreds of people to the Capitol. Activists also began making telephone calls, sending e-mail alerts, chirping and tweeting and rallying a cyber community.

“Our numbers and our passion have spun legislators’ heads,” Goldstein said. “Several told us they’d never seen a show of force like ours collectively — and that it made all the difference in the world.”

Activists want to move the legislation in the next six weeks because Gov. John Corzine, who has said he will sign the measure, leaves office Jan. 19. Gov.-elect Chris Christie, however, has said he would veto the bill.

Corzine, following the committee vote, said the marriage issue should be recognized as a civil rights issue and excitement built over the likelihood that New Jersey would become the sixth state to legalize same-sex marriage. Same-sex couples can legally marry in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont and New Hampshire. Five other states — California, New Jersey, Oregon, Washington and Nevada — provide same-sex couples with access to state level benefits through domestic partnerships or civil unions. D.C. also provides some partnership benefits.

The excitement escalated Dec. 9, when Springsteen, long associated with a number of progressive causes, posted “A Brief Statement From Bruce” on his Web site:

“Like many of you who live in New Jersey, I’ve been following the progress of the marriage-equality legislation currently being considered in Trenton. I’ve long believed in and have always spoken out for the rights of same-sex couples and fully agree with Governor Corzine when he writes that, ‘The marriage-equality issue should be recognized for what it truly is — a civil rights issue that must be approved to assure that every citizen is treated equally under the law.’ I couldn’t agree more with that statement and urge those who support equal treatment for our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters to let their voices be heard now.”

Garden State Equality dispatched a note to its members: “In New Jersey, no other endorsement comes close.”

Later Dec. 9, Garden State Equality announced a delay in the senate, where 21 votes are needed to pass the marriage bill.

“Sen. Ray Lesniak and I requested that Senate President Richard J. Codey hold Senate Bill 1967,” said New Jersey Sen. Loretta Weinberg, a co-sponsor of the bill.

Weinberg also asked for Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts to schedule a meeting of the Assembly Judiciary Committee to take up same-sex marriage in light of changes in the senate version of the legislation.

“The Senate committee has substantially amended its version to include sweeping, additional protections for religious institutions,” said Weinberg, adding that she wants lawmakers to hear more from the public.

“Hundreds of citizens lined up outside the committee chambers to offer testimony,” Weinberg said of the senate committee hearing. “The committee spent seven hours hearing from scores of New Jerseyans. We had to turn away another 150 witnesses for want of time. In addition to the committee hearing, thousands of citizens, and dozens of religious and secular organizations, have engaged our members in a thoughtful and productive dialogue on marriage equality.”

Garden State Equality endorsed the decision to delay and praised Weinberg and Lesniak for the leadership.

“Loretta, of course, is our guardian angel — the greatest champion of equality New Jersey has ever seen,” Goldstein said. “I can’t even begin to tell you how hard she’s worked for this legislation.… Raymond has the courage of his convictions like few others we’ve worked with: When he decides something is the correct thing to do to make our society a kinder, fairer place, nothing stops him.”

Meanwhile, on Dec. 15, the Washington, D.C. City Council approved legislation to extend marriage rights to gays. The vote was 11-2 for the bill, which is expected to be signed by the mayor.

Congress still must approve the legislation, and activists expect a 2010 ballot initiative on marriage in D.C.

“The district still has a few hurdles to overcome,” said Jennifer Chrisler of the Family Equality Council.

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