After Senate vote, marriage equality supporters will go back to court

After watching marriage equality legislation go down 14-20 in the state senate, proponents of same sex marriage today vowed to take their fight to court.

“We are not waiting out the term of any new Administration to bring equality to same-sex couples in our state,” said Garden State Equality Chairman Steven Goldstein.

Goldstein says that the legislature defaulted in the “constitutional obligation to provide same-sex couples in New Jersey equal protection, noting a 2006 New Jersey Supreme Court decision that told the Legislature it could “enact marriage or another structure that provides the equal protection of marriage.”

“But the civil union law failed to do that.   Too often, civil union couples too often cannot visit loved ones in hospitals, make medical decisions for their partners or receive equal health benefits from employers,” said Goldstein.  “Hospitals and employers have treated civil union couples differently because they’ve been labeled differently.   Children have been treated differently at school because their families are labeled differently.  

Lambda Legal with join Garden State Equality in filing a suit.
 
 “In other words, though we didn’t achieve our final victory today, we’re better positioned than we were a few months ago to win marriage equality.  So if you’re wondering how we feel, it’s complicated,” Goldstein said.  “On the one hand, we resent, more than you can imagine, remaining second-class citizens a bit longer.  On the other hand, the ball has moved forward.  The public record for the courts is mighty, and we’re closer than ever to winning.”

The lopsided defeat in the senate was a blow to gay rights activists, but not a crushing one.  Momentum for the bill lost steam in November, soon after Republican Gov.-elect Chris Christie, who has pledged to veto the legislation, beat Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine, who has said he will sign it.  Advocates of same-sex marriage watched support dissipate from a claimed 24 votes to just 14 today.

When asked if she was resigned to a defeat of the bill while walking into the senate chambers, its primary sponsor, state Sen. Loretta Weinberg, said she was “resigned to the fact that we’re going to win this eventually.  If not here, then in court.”

Several Democrats either voted no or did not vote.  Voting no were Jeff Van Drew (D-Dennis), Shirley Turner (D-Trenton), Nicholas Sacco (D-North Bergen), Ronald Rice (D-Newark), John Girgenti (D-Hawthorne) and Fred Madden (D-Washinton Twp).  Not voting were James Beach (D-Cherry Hill), Stephen Sweeney (D-West Deptford) and Paul Sarlo (D-Wood-ridge.

Only one Republican,  Bill Baroni (R-Hamilton), voted yes.  Diane Allen (R-Edgewater Park), who is battling cancer, and Andrew Ciesla (R-Brick) were absent.

“The advocates made an extremely strong case.  I wish there were enough votes,” said Sweeney who Goldstein later said told advocates he would be a yes vote if the bill had enough votes to pass.

Only one Republican, state Sen. Bill Baroni (R-Hamilton), voted yes.  Diane Allen (R-Edgewater Park) and Andrew Ciesla (R-Brick) were absent.

Opponents savored the victory, but acknowledged that the fight is not over.

John Tomicki, who leads a group that opposes same sex marriage and wants to put it to a public referendum, said that Goldstein was incorrect in claiming he had 24 votes before Gov.-elect Chris Christie was elected, changing the political landscape.

“We’ve always known that the whole strategy has been to try to push the legislature,” said Tomicki.  “The 21 votes were not there to pass this.  So he tries to set up a legal fiction that civil unions don’t work. He will not be able to prove them at all.

Proponents of the bill expressed dismay at the lack of votes by three Democrats.  Progressive activist Jay Lassiter – a Cherry Hill native and Democratic campaign veteran – was shaking with anger over Beach’s abstention.

“Several months ago I met with Jim Beach at his office.  His chief of staff was present, as were other members of Garden State Equality,” said Lassiter.  “He told us he was 110% on our side.  He said those words: 110% on your side”

But yesterday, Lassiter said he heard a different tune from Beach’s secretary when he checked in informally.

“She said ‘Remember, he told you if you needed a 21st vote he would be there for you.’  He never said that to me.”

Goldstein said at his press conference that Sweeney “should have done the right thing.”

“I can’t tell you how hurtful Senator Sweeney’s abstention was,” he said, adding that Sweeney had been a champion of the rights of other groups.

“Apparently gay people were just not in his vision.”

Last month, after the bill failed to gain enough votes to pass the senate, the meausre was punted to the assembly, where supporters hoped it would gain momentum.   Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts said that although he was prepared to post the bill for a vote on Monday if the senate passed it today, it never would have made it out of the Jan. 4 Assembly Judiciary Committee hearing.

“The bill would never have been released and it would have died then,” he said. 

Governor Jon Corzine, who said he would sign gay marriage legislation if it made it to his desk, said he was “deeply disappointed” that the measure failed.

 “Most assuredly, this is an issue of civil rights and civil liberties, the foundation of our state and federal constitutions.  Denying any group of people a fundamental human right because of who they are, or whom they love, is wrong, plain and simple,” he said in a written statement.   “As was the case when Americans faced legal discrimination on the basis of their race or gender, history will frown on the denial of the basic right of marriage equality.  I regret that the state’s recognition of equal justice and equal treatment under the law will be delayed.  Certainly this process and the resulting debate is historic, but unfortunately, today’s vote was squarely on the wrong side of history.”

After Senate vote, marriage equality supporters will go back to court