Saturday, January 03, 2009

New Jersey marriage equality hits a brick wall because of 2009 election concerns

New Jersey Governor Jon S. Corzine, Senate President Richard J. Codey (D), and Assembly Speaker Joseph J. Roberts Jr. (D), have all recently stated publicly that gay marriage is an idea whose time has come. Echoing the sentiments of a state commission report released last month, some state officials said that civil unions — the closest thing to marriage available to gay couples in the state — were woefully inadequate and that the legalization of gay marriage in New Jersey was not a matter of “if” but “when.”

But with the Governor and all 80 members of the General Assembly (the State of New Jersey calls its House of Representatives the "General Assembly," which does not include the Senate; collectively they are referred to as the New Jersey Legislature) up for re-election in November 2009, most of the officials say the “when” may not be for some time.

The New Jersey Civil Union Review Commission, a 13-member panel convened to evaluate the impact of the state’s 2006 civil union law, in its final report last month, called on the state to legalize same-sex marriage after finding that civil unions did not result in equal treatment. Likening the prohibition against gay couples marrying to the racial segregation laws imposed upon black Americans, the commission said hospitals were reluctant to recognize civil unions when it came to visitation rights, employers did not always extend health benefits to both partners, and the children of such unions were stigmatized.

“New Jersey stands the best shot of any U.S. state to be the first to enact ‘marriage equality’ through legislation rather than by court order,” said Steven Goldstein, vice chairman of the commission and chairman of Garden State Equality, a gay rights organization.

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the State of Connecticut are currently the only places that allow gay couples to marry, and in both instances the issue was decided by the courts rather than the legislatures. California was in that category until November, when gay marriage was overturned by voters.

Mr. Goldstein says his organization has been lobbying to get a measure passed.

“We are very, very close,” he said. “Do I believe we have the votes yet? It depends on how you count them. Even under our very conservative vote counts, we’re very close.”

While the governor had asked lawmakers to refrain from raising the issue during the presidential election, for fear that it would sidetrack voters, he is now encouraging lawmakers to seriously review the commission’s report.

“While this administration is focused squarely on the economic crisis for the foreseeable future, it’s clear that this issue of civil rights must be addressed sooner rather than later,” Mr. Corzine said in a statement.

The governor promised to sign marriage-equality legislation when it reaches his desk. The question is whether state lawmakers will present him with the opportunity. “Politics will play a role in whether it actually gets posted to a committee,” said Assemblyman Reed Gusciora, a Democrat from Princeton and the deputy majority leader, who sponsored a gay marriage bill. “With the Assembly up this November, there will be a lot of members unlikely to get involved with such a polarizing issue.”

Opponents of gay marriage have pledged to make it an issue in the 2009 election. Len Deo, president of the New Jersey Family Policy Council, said his organization believed that some New Jerseyans might support same-sex marriage but that a majority do not want to see marriage redefined in the process.

Some veteran political strategists say lawmakers are reluctant to have voters think they have taken their eyes off the state’s grave fiscal situation. With residents losing jobs and facing foreclosure and the prospect of higher property taxes, they do not want to appear sidetracked.

“There could be a backlash,” said Harold Hodes, a Democratic strategist. “There are other issues that are more pressing at this time.”


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