The last decade or so has provided on and off discussion over the topic of same sex marriage. Early on it was faint discussions with more talk taking place in courts and legal briefing rooms. That began to change towards the end of former Governor Jon Corzine's term as a vote would take place in the State Legislature. It would fall short in the state Senate and with that it looked like it would be tough to pass anything in the short term with Governor Chris Christie. However, Democrats in the State Legislature would be undeterred and led by Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-3); enough previous "no" votes were switched to "yes" votes. The State Legislature had enough votes in both the state Senate and Assembly to pass a bill in the State Legislature last year. But, Christie would use his veto power to strike down the bill just as quickly as it was passed and the Democratic-led State Legislature has yet to muster the needed extra votes to generate an override veto to Christie's veto.
Christie and members of both parties in the State Legislature have encouraged a ballot initiative to be placed before voters in the state to ultimately decide on the matter instead of a legislative or judicial body. Polls have shown a growing majority support for the issue and it would seem a ballot incentive would pass for those who favor same sex marriage. The only concern would be the multiple failures around the country over the years when voters were given the chance to cast a vote to allow same sex marriage in their state. Public opinions have continued to change over the decade plus and success could be more likely via a ballot initiative now than in previous years. Also, one could point to historic votes last November that showed success could come for supporters via a ballot vote.
That is what has led up to the last month or so on this topic and issue in the state. The struggle of getting three more votes in the state Senate and twelve more votes in the Assembly is what has stood between an override of Christie's veto and passage of a bill to allow same sex marriage. Recently, advocates for same sex marriage have become re-energized and have been trying to put pressure on state legislators. There has been some growing hope as a couple "no" or "absent" votes look like "yes" votes if a vote were to take place.
Then a judicial decision changed the whole conversation and landscape. A state judge would rule to legalize same sex marriage in New Jersey under the premise that same sex couples would be denied federal benefits if the state only allowed civil unions. Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson ruled that beginning October 21st state officials would have to begin officiating same sex marriage after she granted an emergency request by six same sex couples.
As she wrote in her opinion,
Same-sex couples must be allowed to marry in order to obtain equal protection of the law under the New Jersey constitution.
It would probably not come as a major surprise that based on his veto of the same sex marriage bill how Christie would view this decision. Christie would quickly point to a likely appeal to the court's decision.
His office would state,
Governor Christie has always maintained that he would abide by the will of the voters on the issue of marriage equality and called for it to be on the ballot this Election Day. Since the Legislature refused to allow the people to decide expeditiously, we will let the Supreme Court make this constitutional determination.
Initial projections expected at least a couple months of waiting for the state Supreme Court to discuss this matter and case if an appeal was brought forward.
While it was uncertain how Christie's potential appeal and an ongoing case would play into this most recent chapter, advocated for same sex marriage took the occasion to celebrate Jacobson's decision.
Leading the way was Lawrence Lustberg, who was the attorney for the six same sex couples and Garden State Equality. Lustberg would voice,
It's a wonderful victory. New Jersey has always been on the forefront of protecting constitutional rights. This decision keeps us in that tradition.
Hayley Gorenberg, another attorney for the six couples on behalf of Lambda Legal, would add;
It is a resounding and satisfying and well deserved victory for our clients. It means so much to my clients and the couples and their children and their families throughout the state. They've fought long and hard to be able to protect the people they love most without discrimination.
Lambda Legal and Garden State Equality took the mantle up for same sex marriage in New Jersey once again after the historic decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court this past June.
Jacobson would speak to the conflict that is presented in states like New Jersey that only allow civil unions and how that ultimately impacts federal benefits that are protected for same sex couples where same sex marriage is legal. She would outline,
The ineligibility of same-sex couples for federal benefits is currently harming same-sex couples in New Jersey in a wide range of contexts.
Joining the comments on the decision and topic was also Troy Stevenson, Executive Director of Garden State Equality. Stevenson would express,
We have been saying it for months and it stands true today: through litigation or legislation, we will win the dignity of marriage this year. We just won the first round through litigation and we will continue to fight until we guarantee marriage for all New Jersey couples.
Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-34) has worked alongside Sweeney to gather enough votes to originally pass the legislation for same sex marriage last year and has continued to work to get more votes that could provide an override. Oliver talking about the decision would exclaim,
This is a great victory for civil rights and treating everyone equally under the law. October 21 should be a very exciting day for many loving New Jersey couples, and I hope Gov. Christie does the right thing and does not appeal. Justice has already been denied for far too long. Let’s clear the way for equal rights for all families.
Christie's challenger for governor, state Senator Barbara Buono (D-18), would also utter;
(This) decision reaffirms that all New Jerseyans, no matter who they love, deserve the right to marry. It is a tremendous victory for everyone who believes in equality. It is also a stark reminder that Governor Christie stands on the wrong side of history. At every turn, he has prevented our gay brothers and sisters from enjoying the same rights as other New Jerseyans. He must now make a decision whether to continue to be an obstacle or to be part of the solution.
The Assembly currently has two openly gay members: Assemblymen Reed Gusciora (D-15) and Tim Eustace (D-38). They too would weigh in on this matter.
Once DOMA (the Defense of Marriage Act) was declared dead it clearly drew the line that if you were married you could enjoy federal benefits and if you were civil unionized you could not. I’ll be disappointed if the administration chooses to appeal.
I have maintained that civil unions are discriminatory, separate, but equal alternatives that have no place in our society. I commend the plaintiffs who kept on the good fight for equality, and the court which granted us this victory. Whether we've won the battle or the war remains to be seen. The governor has been adamant in his opposition, so an appeal could be on its way, but I am hopeful that good will prevail over ideology, the ruling will stand and same-sex couples in New Jersey will finally have the right to marry and enjoy all the benefits that come with marriage.
Not all comments late last month were in favor of the court's decision. John Tomicki, President of the New Jersey Coalition to Preserve and Protect Marriage, echoed the biggest argument opponents of same sex marriage have consistently had: the institution of marriage should be kept between a one man and one woman and the ruling by Jacobson put "freedom of religion and freedom of conscience at great risk." He would continue to say that,
If a member of a religious denomination says that within their faith beliefs, they do not support same-gender marriage, will it be an act of discrimination if they refuse to officiate at such marriage? Those are cases that are going on now across the country.
The rumblings by advocates for same sex marriage and the superior court's ruling would set the table for the month of October and ongoing conversations especially around the possible appeal by Christie. It would all pave the way for a day many supporters have been fighting for.