Six years after Massachusetts passed a historic marriage equality law, 18 months after the same was defeated in New Jersey and just over a week following New York's becoming the sixth state to allow same-sex marriage, Garden State gay rights advocates think victory is on the horizon.
It comes not as a bill in the Legislature, the way New York did it, but through the courts. Garden State Equality, represented by Lambda Legal, filed a lawsuit on behalf of seven same-sex couples and their children in state Superior Court maintaining the state's civil union laws do not guarantee the same rights for same-sex couples as enjoyed by heterosexual couples. They've been down that road before.
In 2006, in a case that had been filed in 2002, the state Supreme Court ruled same-sex couples should be afforded equal rights. Then it passed the ball to the Legislature to make it so. It was a 4-3 vote with the minority saying the state should allow same-sex marriage.
The Legislature went with the less controversial civil unions, which may look like the same legal rights on paper but Haley Gorenberg, Lambda Legal deputy legal director, said it isn't so. "Our clients have been kept from each other during medical crises, denied health insurance, and even discriminated against in funeral homes because their civil unions relegate them to second-class status," she said.
New Jersey had a chance to pass same-sex marriage in January 2010. But the Senate voted it down, 14 in favor, 20 against with 21 "yes" votes needed for passage as former Gov. Jon Corzine's administration neared its end. Corzine had said he would sign it. Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney, D-Gloucester, did not vote. Recently, Sweeney said it was one of the biggest mistakes of his career. He now sees it as a civil rights issue.
In the Assembly, no vote was taken. The official excuse from then-Speaker Joe Roberts was that it wouldn't pass, so why vote? That hadn't stopped votes on other issues in doubt. It was more likely a way to protect members from going on the record since the gay community usually supports Democrats.
Opponents say it shouldn't be decide by judges, it should be decided by a referendum. Advocates point out in 1915 New Jersey voters in a referendum denied women the right to vote.
Assemblyman Reed Gusciora, D-Mercer, introduced a same-sex marriage bill last month, but there is no companion effort in the Senate. Even if it got through the Legislature, it is highly unlikely it would become law. On NBC's "Meet The Press" last week, Gov. Chris Christie said, "I am not a fan of same-sex marriage. It's not something that I support."
Polls show the younger you are the less it matters. Generally, people under 40 just don't see what the fuss is about. But it's the older people who vote in larger numbers and donate money to politicians, and that's why marriage equality probably will come to New Jersey via the court that already said things are not equal and need to change. Incidentally, the Supreme Court won't have the same makeup by the time this case makes it back, five of the seven justices hearing the first case will have been replaced.
The writer is senior political columnist for Gannett New Jersey newspapers. His column appears every Wednesday and Sunday. He can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com and heard on New Jersey 101.5 FM radio at 5 p.m. Fridays.