New Jersey ready for civil marriage for same sex couples

12 Aug 2008

Gay marriage: Not if, but when

Backers of same-sex marriage in New Jersey believe they have the wind at their backs. They are confident the state will replace civil unions for gay couples with full civil-marriage rights.

They also believe it will be done not by court order, which is the way gay marriage became legal in Massachusetts and California, but by legislative action.

Their only uncertainty is when the change will come.

"Late this year or sometime next year," predicts Steven Goldstein, chairman of Garden State Equality, a gay-rights group that has been at the forefront of the lobbying campaign.

That may be too optimistic, says Assemblyman Reed Gusciora, D-Princeton Borough, the sponsor of a bill to authorize civil marriage for same-sex couples. New Jersey is "a progressive state" and the bill will pass "sooner rather than later," he says, but its backers first will have to persuade hesitant lawmakers that the change is not only right but politically safe.

Driving their efforts is the fact that civil unions, which are supposed to provide participants with all the rights of marriage except the name, have "failed miserably to provide equality," in Goldstein's words. A review commission reported last February that civil unions are "not clear to the general public" and confer "second-class status" on the partners.

"The law has wreaked havoc on same-sex couples' lives because too many employers, hospitals and others throughout the state do not recognize a civil union as marriage," said Goldstein, who is vice chairman of the review commission. "They don't believe the Legislature intended it to be equal."

The Legislature created civil unions after the state Supreme Court ruled in 2006 that the state and federal constitutions entitle same-sex couples to all the rights of marriage but not necessarily the institution of marriage itself. (In a dissent that argued for full marriage rights, then-Chief Justice Deborah Poritz wrote prophetically: "What we name things matters.")

Most distressing, Goldstein said, has been the testimony of gay couples that their children are teased by schoolmates because their parents aren't married.

"Kids are pretty smart, and they hurt easily," he said. "When they are taunted or asked in a hostile way why their parents have something inferior, why they aren't equal, that's psychologically damaging.

"The irony is that New Jersey was the national leader in letting gay couples adopt. Why would the state then turn around and send a signal to those children that their parents can't marry? It's been our biggest heartbreak."

The opponents' principal argument is that allowing people of the same sex to marry will "damage the institution of marriage." But they are unable to explain how.

"It's not going to affect Britney Spears' ability to continuously get married," said Gusciora. "[Republican leader] Newt Gingrich has been married three times, and it wasn't because of same-sex marriage."

"There are threats to the institution of marriage," Goldstein said. "The threats are unemployment, a bad economy, financial pressures, emotional pressures. But marriage is not a threat to marriage! I've asked opponents to show me one straight couple, just one, whose marriage would fall apart because a gay couple got married. They can't.

"Interestingly, the state with the lowest divorce rate in the country is Massachusetts, the first state that allowed same-sex couples to marry. Canada, which allows same-sex marriage [and where Goldstein and his partner were married] has a divorce rate one-half the U.S. rate."

His belief that change in New Jersey will come within a year stems from a growing consensus for it. He points out that this is the only state in which the governor and the leaders of both houses of the Legislature endorse marriage equality. And his head count of legislators shows that the bill would win a majority in the Assembly and is one or two votes shy of the 21 votes needed in the Senate.

He believes an additional push will come from a follow-up report by the Civil Union Review Commission that is expected later this year. It could have the same kind of effect as the powerful report from the Death Penalty Study Commission that led New Jersey to pioneer on another front by becoming the first state to abolish capital punishment by legislative action.

In a Zogby poll a year ago, respondents said, 63 percent to 31 percent, that they would be "fine" with gay marriage if officials decided it was needed to fix the civil-union system. "New Jerseyans care about the economy, which affects them personally," Goldstein said. "They care about gas prices. They care about property taxes. They care about government corruption. Do they care about depriving me and my partner of equality? No -- they don't. The state is much fairer than that."

Gov. Jon Corzine, who has promised to sign the bill if it reaches his desk, would prefer that it happen after the November presidential election. Corzine and other Democrats well remember 2004, when Republicans in Ohio and 10 other states organized anti-gay-marriage referendums to bring out the conservative vote for President Bush.

Waiting until after November could help in another way, Goldstein suggested. Although opposition is centered in the Republican Party, he said "several" GOP senators have indicated that they would vote yes later, but would be reluctant to do so now because it would undercut the anti-gay-marriage position of their party's presidential candidate, John McCain.

A related complaint by advocates is that gay couples that have been legally married elsewhere aren't recognized as such when they move to New Jersey, thanks to a ruling by then-Attorney General Stuart Rabner, now chief justice of the state Supreme Court. Instead, their marriages automatically turn into civil unions.

Corzine could change that by an executive order, just as New York Gov. David Paterson decreed earlier this year that his state would recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states. So far, Corzine hasn't chosen to take that route.

"It would help if he did," Goldstein said. "It would be another nail in the coffin of the idea that marriage by gay people would hurt straight marriage."

Contact George Amick at