By ANGELA DELLI SANTI
TRENTON, N.J. – Democrats in the New Jersey Legislature will reintroduce a gay marriage bill and have vowed to make same-sex unions a top priority two years after similar legislation was voted down.
Four people with direct knowledge of the draft bill told The Associated Press that Democrats’ priority for the new legislative session is to move the bill quickly through both houses of the Legislature and forward it to the governor, perhaps as early as next month.
Gov. Chris Christie has said previously that he doesn’t support gay marriage.
The people, who spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because the bill is still being drafted, said denying gay couples the ability to marry violates their civil rights. They say they hope that’s how the governor will see it, too.
Six other states and Washington, D.C., permit gay marriage.
New Jersey recognizes civil unions, but marriage equality advocates insist the law is flawed. They said it does not offer the legal protections of marriage as intended. The state’s main gay rights group and same-sex couples have sued.
Democrats tried but failed to shepherd a gay marriage bill through the Senate in the waning days of the Corzine administration in 2010 after Gov. Jon Corzine, a Democrat, said he would sign it. Fourteen senators voted for the bill. The measure needed 21 votes to pass.
Senate President Steve Sweeney, a Democrat who abstained, has regretted not voting ever since. He has called his inaction on the bill “the biggest mistake” of his legislative career.
To indicate the importance he has since attached to the bill, Sweeney will be among its prime sponsors in the Senate along with incoming Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg and Sen. Ray Lesniak. It is being assigned the symbolic number S1, as the first bill of the new two-year session.
“The world has changed since 2009 when the bill last came up,” said Steven Goldstein, who heads the gay rights group Garden State Equality. “I don’t think anyone has seen a civil rights movement accelerate so quickly.”
Democrats said they are confident they have enough votes to advance the bill but can’t do it by veto-proof majorities without some Republican support. It’s likely to die with the Republican governor. However, Christie also could ignore the bill if it reaches his desk, and it would become law in 45 days without his signature.
Goldstein said he doesn’t believe there are any circumstances under which Christie, a national GOP figure who is often talked about as a future presidential prospect, would sign a gay marriage bill.
Christie was campaigning with Mitt Romney on Sunday in New Hampshire, where the Legislature is expected to vote soon on whether to repeal a 2009 gay marriage law. Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who is seeking the GOP presidential nomination, recently told a voter there that he supports the repeal effort.
“I believe marriage is between a man and a woman,” he told the voter, who turned out to be a gay veteran.
The New Jersey bill allows religious institutions and personnel to opt out. In other words, no clergy member would be compelled to perform a gay marriage ceremony and no place of worship would be required to allow same-sex weddings at their facilities.
The gay rights group’s lawsuit is proceeding on a parallel track.
A Superior Court judge ruled in November that a suit filed by gay couples to force the state to recognize same-sex marriage can go forward, setting up a trial on the issue five years after the state Supreme court stopped short of allowing same-sex nuptials.