New Jersey Newsroom

As N.J. Democrats Move To Approve Gay Marriage, Christie Calls For Voters To Decide

New Jersey Newsroom — Tuesday, January 24, 2012


As the climax to a three-hour public hearing, the Democratic-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday approved legislation that would legalize gay marriage in New Jersey.

The 8 to 4 vote along party lines took place in the Statehouse Annex before a large audience of about 350 same-sex marriage advocates and about 50 opponents.

Meanwhile, at a public meeting he held in Bridgewater, Republican Gov. Chris Christie signaled how he would react should the Democratic-controlled Legislature send him, as it plans to quickly do, a bill legalizing same-sex marriage. The governor said New Jersey voters should be allowed to decide the issue through a referendum on the November ballot.

"This issue that our state is exploring — whether or not to redefine hundreds of years of societal and religious traditions — should not be decided by 121 people in the Statehouse in Trenton," Christie said. "The fact is we're discussing huge change and I believe we need to approach this not only in a thoughtful way, not in a rushed way, but also in a way where we're able to get the most input that we can from the public."

Sen. Raymond J. Lesniak (D-Union), a member of the Judiciary Committee and a prime sponsor of the bill (S-1), quickly criticized Christie suggestion, saying gay couples in New Jersey should be given the equal right to marry that heterosexual couples enjoy.

"Marriage equality isn't like sports betting," Lesniak said. "It's a civil right which is already guaranteed in our Constitution. It's up to the Legislature to guarantee these rights and support marriage equality for same sex couples."

Assembly Speaker Sheila Y. Oliver (D-Essex) also criticized Christie's call for a referendum.

"Major issues of our time such as women's suffrage and civil rights were rightly decided legislatively," Oliver said. "We are elected by the people of New Jersey to protect civil rights. We do not pass on such tough decisions."

Polls show the majority of New Jerseyans have no problem with the legalization of same-sex marriage. Presently, the state permits so-called civil unions.

Should the "Marriage Equality and Religious Exemption Act, be approved in the state, New Jersey would become the seventh state to allow same-sex marriage. Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, New Hampshire, Vermont and New York have legalized it as have 10 countries, including South Africa, Argentina, Portugal, Spain, Belgium, Iceland, Norway and Sweden.

Sen. Christopher "Kip" Bateman (R-Somerset), who is also a committee member, sided with Christie. Bateman said he is willing to work with supporters and opponents alike to craft what he described as an unbiased and fair question on the issue in the form of either a Constitutional Amendment or statute enabled by referendum.

New Jersey Citizen Action, the state's largest citizen watchdog organization, announced support for the bill.

"Part of our mission at New Jersey Citizen Action is to expand the rights of individuals and families," Director Phyllis Salowe-Kaye said. "There is no issue more pressing right now to the rights of families in the state of New Jersey as S1, a bill that would ensure that every single citizen of this state who demonstrates love, commitment and honor to his or her partner is treated equally under the law.

"Right now, same-sex couples in this state are treated with the same 'separate but equal' mentality that plagued the United States before the civil rights movement," Salowe-Kaye said. "The fact is that civil unions are simply not the same as marriage. Couples who have civil-unions are granted second-class benefits when compared to their married neighbors. While they may receive some state protections here in New Jersey, same-sex couples continue to be denied the over 1,000 federal protections offered to married couples. To try to justify that schism is to say to all the same-sex couples in this state that their love, honor, and commitment just isn't good enough — that it isn't equal — and that is unacceptable."

"This is an emotionally charged issue on which people of good will can reasonably disagree," Bateman said. "It is also an issue that should not be used for any political purposes or posturing. I believe the only way to reach a resolution that reflects the true will of all the people we represent and erases politics from the equation is to place it directly before the voters."

Senate President Steven Sweeney (D-Gloucester) appeared before the committee and said the same-sex marriage debate is solely about civil rights and fairness and, due to the bill's exemptions, not about religious beliefs. He also cited the need to right inequality in the state, citing the failure of the current civil union law.

"Equality, fairness and justice are the most basic of American principles," Sweeney said. "Yet there remain Americans for whom these principles are not fully realized. As long as it's acceptable for some citizens to have different rights and benefits — and by definition, lesser than those of the majority — equality, fairness and justice will elude us as a society. There is no more striking example of this inequality than the way our laws treat same-sex couples. That is why I called for the first Senate bill of this new legislative session — S1 — to be devoted to achieving marriage equality in New Jersey."

Sweeney added, "I think Ron Paul...yes, that Ron Paul, (a Republican presidential hopeful) might have summed it up best when he wrote: "Why not tolerate everyone's definition as long as neither side uses force to impose its views on the other? Problem solved!"

Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-Mercer), a strong advocate for same-sex marriage and sponsor of the lower house version of the legislation, urged the committee to approve the legislation.

"America has always been about the celebration of those who struggle for triumph over adversity," Gusciora said. "Despite the opposition and religious bigotry, it was the right thing to do to correct the ills of discrimination based upon race in this country. And despite the opposition and religious bigotry, we celebrate those who fought for women's suffrage.

"In fact our state, despite the opposition, upheld the foundations of liberty when we enacted the Law Against Discrimination, which protects us against discrimination based upon color, creed, sex, national origin, handicap status, and yes, sexual orientation," the Assemblyman added. "I hope no one here wants to turn back the clock in our rich history of safeguarding popular will over the rights of minorities, which has been a bedrock principle of this country since Madison's Federalist Paper #10."

Assembly Republican Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Union) joined in support of Christie's referendum proposal.

"An issue of this magnitude should be decided by the voters of New Jersey. Legalizing same sex-marriage represents a significant change from the way marriage has been traditionally defined," Bramnick said. "The voters deserve the right to settle this issue by referendum in November."

Here are Christie's complete comments on the same-sex marriage issue:

"This issue that our state is exploring — whether or not to redefine hundreds of years of societal and religious traditions — should not be decided by 121 people in the State House in Trenton.

"The fact is we're discussing huge change and I believe we need to approach this not only in a thoughtful way, not in a rushed way, but also in a way where we're able to get the most input that we can from the public.

"So, if New Jersey is seriously looking to overturn hundreds of years of societal, legal and religious tradition, we need to give the issue the weight that it merits.

"So, I think that this is not an issue that should rest solely in my hands, in the hands of the Senate President, or in the hands of the Speaker or the other 118 members of the Legislature.

"Let's let the people of New Jersey decide what is right for the state.

"Let's put the question of same-sex marriage on the ballot this fall, in the hands of the people, at the time where the most people will be voting, in the presidential election year.

"I support giving New Jerseyans the ability to give voice to their support or their opposition to this issue.

"We have an opportunity now to take away political maneuvering and political advantage and the inherent issues that existed the last time this issue was before the legislature when it failed.

"Let's make sure that political maneuvering is not what judges this, and let's make sure this is not just someone trying to have fun and create a campaign issue. It's too serious - the institution of marriage is too serious to be treated like a political football.

"So, my message to the Legislature — and this is simple — and I'm doing it today because today is the first day they're beginning to consider it. Let's stop treating this like a political football and let's let the people of New Jersey decide.

"That way those who are in favor, those who are opposed, will have the opportunity to make their case over the next nine months to the people of New Jersey. And then, in the year when the most people will be voting, we get a decision. And the people decide whether or not they believe same-sex marriage should exist in this State or not.

"I would certainly be willing to be governed by the decision of the people this State, especially in a year that the most people will be voting in the state.

"And I would hope that the legislature would be willing to trust the people, the way I'm willing to trust the people.

"This issue is too big and too consequential not to trust the people who will be governed ultimately by any change in law or maintenance of the current law."

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