Marriage equality legislation clears Senate Judiciary committee

TRENTON — Advocates of marriage equality savored a victory tonight after the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to pass same sex marriage legislation on to the full senate.

The vote was seven in favor and six opposed.

The bill's ultimate passage, however, is far from certain. The Senate will take it up on Thursday in a vote that is expected to be close and not strictly along partisan lines.

Two Democrats on the Judiciary Committee voted against forwarding the bill for a vote of the full Senate – Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Paul Sarlo (D-Wood-ridge) and Vice Chair John Girgenti (D-Hawthorne), while one Republican – state Sen. Bill Baroni (R-Hamilton) voted in favor of moving it.

The committee also unanimously voted to accept Baroni's amendment expanding the scope of protection from legal culpability for refusing to perform, give space or solemnize gay marriages from just clergy to religious societies, institutions and organizations. Baroni called it the "most profound, far reaching religious protection amendment anywhere in the country."

State Sen. Christopher "Kip" Bateman – who was said to be a possible vote in favor of the legislation until he faced conservative pushback – tried to find a middle ground, saying that although he would voted against the legislation, he would work to rectify shortcomings in the current civil union law.

"I think this legislation has an obligation, if this legislation should fail on Thursday, I would recommend to work in a bipartisan manner to come up wit a new bill that will give equal rights to everyone," he said.

But state Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Elizabeth) – one of the bill's chief sponsors – argued that Bateman's idea was impossible.

"I don't know how you can change a law to accept couples as equal by making them different," he said.

Girgenti was considered a possible yes vote by marriage equality supporters, but he dashed those hopes with his no vote and the comments that accompanied them. He said that passing the bill would "fundamentally" change the definition of marriage, and that such a change should be put before the voters.

"By supporting this measure, I would not only be violating my conscience, but the public conscience as well," he said.

Baroni drew the most enthusiastic response in the packed chambers when he voted for the bill, saying that same-sex couples want equal treatment, which is "not too much to ask."

"I will be the first ever New Jersey legislator in this state on the question of marriage equality to say the following: I vote yes," he said, drawing a standing ovation from the crowd that lasted for the better part of a minute.

Sarlo, visibly enjoying praise from legislators who said he ran a fair and comprehensive hearing, said he honored his commitment to post the legislation even though he personally opposed it.

Of the civil union law, Sarlo said "If there are loopholes and it's not working, well then we should fix it."

Throughout the hearing, the most vocal opponent of the bill was state Sen. Gerald Cardinale, who said that passing it in lame duck was contrary to the mood voters expressed when they elected a Republican as governor last month. He also opposed it on moral grounds, however.

"I believe that the use of the term marriage will, in fact, promote a lifestyle," he said. "I do not believe that all gay folks have chosen to be gay. I think that is a pretty well disproved theory. But I think some have chosen a path. I believe this bill… will encourage more to choose that path, and I don't think that's particularly good for our society."

Testimony for and against the legislation from the public lasted about seven hours, with witnesses arguing on theoretical, personal and even monetary themes. Dozens testified, and many more had to be turned away for lack of time, said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Paul Sarlo (D-Wood-ridge).

The first witness was NAACP Chairman Julian Bond, who equated gay marriage with the racial civil rights struggle.

Bond said the debate calls to mind the decision that overturned states' bans on interracial marriage, the 42-year-old Loving v. Virginia.

"Then as now, proponents of marriage as-is wanted to amend the United States constitution….Does any of this sound familiar? Then as now, proponents of marriage as-is invoke God's plan," said Bond. "They should never be subject to popular votes. When others gain these rights, my rights are not diminished in any way."

In advocating marriage equality, Bond brought up the phrase that has come to define the failed justification for racial segregation.

"At best, civil unions are separate but equal, and we all know separate is never equal," he said.

The first witness opposed to the legislation was Patrick Brannigan, executive director of the New Jersey Catholic Conference

Despite the Catholic Church's past opposition to civil union laws across the country,Brannigan argued that "the record shows that overwhelmingly the civil union act is working effectively."

The Civil Union Review Commission's report that called the civil union law inadequate, Brannigan said, was "flawed" but "accepted as fact."

"To disrespect a person because of their sexual orientation is to disrespect God," said Brannigan. "However the church does not recognize same sex marriage and views the use of the word marriage to describe a same sex relationship as a contradiction of terms."
By the end of the meeting, over a dozen clergy from various faiths had spoken in behalf of both sides.

Coalition to Preserve and Protect Marriage President John Tomicki tried to turn the civil rights talk on its head, holding up a book of speeches by Martin Luther King, Jr.

"He talks about what a just law is," said "Any law that does not square with, shall we say, biblical conditions, he would call an unjust law," he said.

Supporters tried to convince legislators to support it based on hundreds of millions into the state's economy, citing a study by the Williams Institute at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) School of Law.

Some supporters of the legislation gave heart-wrenching personal accounts of being denied access to loved ones in the hospital, or, in the case of partners Marsha Shapiro and Louise Walpin, of struggling to secure health benefits for their adopted children. Two of their children have special needs, one of whom died last year at age 20.

Walpin and Shapiro, through their appearances in Garden State Equality's internet ad campaign, have become the de facto faces of the gay marriage movement in New Jersey. They noted that many couples with just one special needs child split up, but their relationship continued.

"If this isn't marriage, what is?" said Shapiro.

As the meeting went past its sixth hour, patience started to wear thin. When one witness who opposed the legislation went over his allotted two minutes of speaking time and argued that his side was not getting as much respect from the committee as proponents, Lesniak loudly said "next witness." Sarlo, who said that they had been respectful to both sides of the issue, admonished Lesniak to not interrupt.