By ANGELA DELLI SANTI
TRENTON, N.J. – Flanked by same-sex couples who say New Jersey’s civil union law fails to offer them the legal protections granted heterosexual spouses, Democrats in the Senate and Assembly vowed to pass a gay marriage bill and send it to the governor despite doubts that he will sign it.
Senate President Steve Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver said they would make marriage equality a top priority in the new legislative session, which starts Tuesday. The bill was given the symbolic number S1 in the Senate and A1 in the Assembly, indicating its importance as the first measure of the two-year term.
“A majority of the members of my house supported marriage equality in our last session,” said Oliver. “The position of many of our legislators has not faltered or changed.”
The measure was never voted on in the Assembly in 2010. It died in the Senate, where 13 Democrats and one Republican supported it, seven votes shy of the number needed to send it to then-Gov. Jon Corzine, a Democrat who supported the measure and wanted to sign a gay marriage bill before he left office.
Sweeney, who abstained from the vote two years ago and has regretted it since, said he will work to correct the mistake. He is one of three primary sponsors of the bill in the Senate.
Gov. Chris Christie has said he is no fan of gay marriage. The Republican governor has said he supports civil unions, which the state recognizes. Civil unions confer the legal benefits of marriage to same-sex couples without the title.
John Grant and Daniel Weiss, an Asbury Park couple who are in a civil union, attended Monday’s news conference to support gay marriage.
When Grant was in a life-threatening automobile accident and rushed to a New York hospital in 2010 before that state had a gay marriage law, Weiss said he couldn’t authorize badly needed surgery or even go through his partner’s wallet to find his health insurance card.
“For all intents and purposes, our civil union was completely worthless in New York,” Weiss said. “It was as if I was attempting to use counterfeit currency.”
New Jersey’s gay rights organization, Garden State Equality, and same-sex couples have sued to force the state to allow gay couples to marry. The suit is pending.
Polls show a majority of New Jerseyans support the right of same-sex couples to wed, and Democrats in the Legislature are framing their argument as a civil rights issue. Also, under the bill, church clergy would not be required to perform gay marriages and places of worship would not have to allow same-sex weddings at their facilities.
John Tomicki, president of the New Jersey Coalition to Preserve and Protect Marriage, said “the trend is not in homosexual marriages” since 31 states have adopted constitutional amendments to define marriage as a union between one man and one woman.
“If you’re saying it’s a civil right, you then state that any group of individuals who are in love would have the right to marry. You will remove all statutory barriers to marriage regarding number, age and gender,” he said.
Six other states and Washington, D.C., permit gay marriage.
Christie, a nationally prominent Republican and practicing Catholic who is frequently mentioned as a future prospect for the White House, is not expected to support the bill. But he could ignore the measure if it reaches his desk, which would allow it to become law without his signature.
Democrats don’t enjoy veto-proof majorities in either house so they would need support from Republicans to override a Christie veto. No Republicans were at Monday’s press conference, but Sen. Loretta Weinberg of Teaneck, a bill sponsor, said GOP Sen. Jennifer Beck has indicated her support.