New Gay Marriage Push

11 Dec 2008


North Jersey lawmakers are leading a renewed push to make gay marriage legal in 2009 after a report on the issue said the Legislature should change the law and allow same-sex couples to marry.

A bill that would allow same-sex civil marriages in New Jersey, sponsored by state Sen. Loretta Weinberg, D-Teaneck, and Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, D-Englewood, has stalled since the summer.

But a report issued Wednesday by the state Civil Union Review Commission called for swift passage of a civil marriage law, saying cash-strapped New Jersey could generate millions in tax revenue from same-sex civil marriage licenses.

The report also compared the state's denial of full marriage rights with racial segregation in the U.S. during the 1960s and the decades before.

"Separate treatment was wrong then and it is just as wrong now," the report said.

Weinberg, in response, predicted a law allowing civil marriages in New Jersey would come in 2009.

"I think we'll get there," she said. "I'm not going to predict what month."

Huttle said the commission's report helps prove that the civil union law enacted in 2006 isn't working.

"I don't think it that it will ever be right until we see the word marriage in there," she said.

State Sen. Paul Sarlo, who will become chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee next month, said he's personally against the Weinberg-Huttle bill, but is open to putting it up for a vote.

"If those who are in support of it and the sponsors can demonstrate there is significant support for this measure ... I would not stand in the way of progress and prevent a spirited debate on the issue," said Sarlo, D-Wood-Ridge. "I think that's fair."

Governor Corzine signed a bill creating civil unions in late 2006 after the state Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples must have the same rights and benefits as heterosexual couples.

He said Wednesday that he would also sign legislation enacting same-sex civil marriages.

"I encourage the Legislature to seriously review the commission's report and, as I have said before, I will sign marriage equality legislation when it reaches my desk," Corzine said.

Senate President Richard J. Codey, D-West Orange, would not commit to posting the bill on Wednesday. He said "civil rights progress -- whether it's the rights of women, minorities or same-sex couples -- is one that is typically achieved in incremental steps."

Assembly Speaker Joe Roberts, D-Camden, said same-sex civil marriages will eventually be allowed in New Jersey.

"Same-sex marriage in New Jersey is only a matter of 'when,' not 'if,' " Roberts said

Having the commission's recommendations made public should help legislators feel more comfortable supporting civil marriage, said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University in Lawrenceville.

"The report makes the case this will generate money for New Jersey and there's a moral obligation because we have effectively created second-class citizens through the use of the civil-union law," he said. "I don't think it will convince everybody."

"One has to be realistic about it," he said. "There are folks who don't need a report to know how to think about this issue."

Still, Assemblyman Reed Gusciora, prime sponsor of the Assembly version of the bill and the Legislature's first openly gay member, said supporters of the legislation are still in for "a tough haul."

"Given the reasoning of the commission and an appeal for equitable treatment, I would hope that legislators would do the right thing," said Gusciora, D-Mercer.

Frank Vespa-Papaleo, chairman of the committee and director of the state Division on Civil Rights, said the commission recommendations released Wednesday are "really a legislative matter at this point."

"One of the strongest parts of the report is the fiscal impact to New Jersey. Bringing marriage and same-sex couples to New Jersey will generate $19 million in tax revenue and $300 million in commercial sales at a time when we need more business,'' Vespa-Papaleo said.

Steven Goldstein, chairman of Garden State Equality, which campaigns for same-sex marriage, was a member of the panel that produced the report for the Legislature. Goldstein praised the report for "accelerating the timetable for marriage equality significantly in New Jersey."

About 3,353 couples have entered into civil unions since 2006, Goldstein said.

For many gay couples in North Jersey who have faced discrimination under the civil union law, the report gave hope that same-sex marriage is achievable.

Mirna Montejo and Suzanne Kinzler of Clifton, who had a civil union ceremony in April 2007, found that Montejo's former employer would not allow her to include Kinzler on her benefits, citing the federal Employment Retirement Income Security Act.

Kinzler, an elementary school teacher, had to explain her situation when students noticed her wedding ring last year.

"She told them the state won't let her marry," Montejo said. "I hate to be considered not a whole person."

At hospitals, they have filled out extra forms explaining what a civil union confers. "Marriage is the word everyone understands," Montejo said. "Saying 'she's my civil union partner' just isn't the same."

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