The issue of gay marriage has a history of moving forward in fits and starts in New Jersey. Now, on the heels of the Supreme Court’s repudiation of a portion of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), there is a renewed effort to pass a veto-proof marriage equality bill in New Jersey by the end of the legislative session.
“Absolutely, there is momentum,” says Rev. Craig Hirshberg, executive director of the Unitarian Universalist Ministry of New Jersey (UULMNJ). “Right after DOMA, a new coalition raised enough funds to hire 20 organizers in New Jersey to make this happen. Some of them worked on the campaigns in Maine and Massachusetts to pass marriage equality. So, there is a huge effort to pressure legislators to respond to what constituents are saying.”
What “constituents are saying,” she adds, is increasingly reflected in statewide polling. A Quinnipiac University poll released earlier this summer found that 60 percent of New Jerseyans support marriage equality. UULMNJ is lending support to this effort, making passage of a marriage equality bill one of its top legislative priorities this year.
“We might pull this off”
The focus of UULMNJ’s efforts will be decided at its annual Fall Issues Conference on October 19. There, representatives from New Jersey’s 21 UU congregations will choose and refine the organization’s legislative priorities and courses of action for the coming year. Along with this fall’s referendum to increase New Jersey’s minimum wage, Hirshberg expects marriage equality to be a prime focus.
“We think we might be able to pull this off before the end of the legislation session, so we are putting resources toward it,” she says.
Sensing victory, UULMNJ is hiring a full-time campaign organizer to work through UU congregations and with the New Jersey United for Marriage (NJUM) campaign. “This was a leap of faith,” says Hirshberg. “We didn’t have all the money we needed to do this, but we went ahead. We need $10,000 to $15,000 to do the campaign.” To date, she says, UULMNJ has raised about $9500 toward this effort.
Rather than appealing to congregations for donations — which it typically does when seeking support for its work — UULMNJ is soliciting individual contributions for this campaign. Through two such appeals last Sunday, members of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Montclair contributed $3,200, and members of the Unitarian Church in Summit collectively contributed almost $1700.
The NJUM campaign consists of a number of tactics. One involves staffing a phone bank, but it’s different than your typical phone bank. “These are ‘targeted transfer’ phone banks. You call people who live in targeted districts and ask if they are supportive of gay marriage. If they are, they will be transferred to their legislator and they can leave a message.” That, Hirshberg says, creates “a groundswell of phone calls from people within the district.”
Other tactics involve a personal touch. UULMNJ is encouraging a letter-writing campaign — “we want handwritten letters, not just form letters,” Hirshberg says — and personal appointments with legislators as the election approaches. “We’re asking people to visit their legislator and ask to talk with them about marriage equality. Take your ministers and social action committees,” she says.
Through such visits, she says, UULMNJ hopes to encourage respectful and dignified conversations about the issue. “I look at it as part of our faith — our first principle about believing in the inherent worth and dignity of all people. We take our UU voice, and reflect our belief in our demeanor toward other people.”
Legislators can expect to hear from several groups on this issue. The broad coalition Hirshberg mentioned previously includes Garden State Equality, Lambda Legal, and Marriage Equality USA, and the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU believes there will be enough votes from both parties for a veto-proof majority, and that the time for a vote will come after this fall’s elections.
Fulton rallies the troops
UULMNJ will work with some of these organizations to ensure that resources are used wisely. “We do not work alone,” says Hirshberg. “We work in coalition with other groups, so that together, we can be a force.”
Those in attendance at UULMNJ’s October issues conference will get a pep talk from keynote speaker Sue Fulton, a key player in the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Fulton, a 1980 West Point graduate, and Penny Gnesin last year became the first lesbian couple to be wed at the West Point chapel. (Vanessa Southern, minister of the Unitarian Church in Summit, performed the ceremony.) Gnesin, formerly the director of Olympia’s Daughters and now the director of Giving Voice, the women's choir at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Monmouth County, will provide musical inspiration.
Though marriage equality and the minimum wage referendum are at the forefront of this year’s UULMNJ legislative agenda, both issues have a short-term horizon and culminate within the next three months. Hirshberg says other priorities for the legislative session that begins in January will be identified at October’s conference.
The success of UULMNJ’s work, she adds, is defined not just by tallying up bills passed, signed into law, or vetoed — but by the organization’s passion and consistency. “I look at success as showing up and being a presence,” says Hirshberg.” It’s not always about winning. It’s about being a constant Unitarian Universalist presence and holding up the moral and ethical questions related to proposed legislation and regulation. In that sense, we have been very successful.”
Tax-deductible donations to help UULMNJ with this campaign can be sent to UULMNJ, 4 Waldron Ave., Summit, NJ 07901, or by visiting www.uulmnj.org.
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