Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Corzine: Jersery Gay Marriage Inevitable After 2008

Corzine: Jersey Gay Marriage Inevitable - After 2008

New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine meets with gay journalists on September 9 in Newark.
In a one-hour session with gay journalists, New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine made clear that he sees full marriage equality for same-sex couples as inevitable in the Garden State, but also believes that, from a strategic political perspective, achieving that milestone is best left to a time after the 2008 presidential election.

"I think we're in the process of evolution," he said at the September 9 event. "I don't know whether it's three years or five years, but in some time frame in the not so distant future I suspect that New Jersey will embrace the moniker of gay marriage or same-sex marriage."

The issue was the key focus of Corzine's informal gathering with roughly two-dozen members of the New York chapter of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark.

But the governor also fielded questions about the state's hate crimes statute, Democratic presidential politics, and the resignation of Idaho GOP Senator Larry Craig.

The same-sex marriage issue has been front and center in New Jersey since last fall when the state Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the Legislature must extend all the rights and benefits available to married spouses under state law to same-sex couples.

Four of the seven justices, however, ruled that the requirement could be achieved by enacting either full marriage equality or a separate, parallel institution for gay and lesbian couples.

At Corzine's urging, the Legislature acted quickly to adopt a civil unions law, which the governor Sunday characterized as the strongest partnership recognition statute in the nation "short of" same-sex marriage in Massachusetts.

While emphasizing the strength of that law and his desire to have "a little more time" to judge how it's working, the governor was unambiguous in saying he would sign a marriage equality law if it came to his desk.

But adding, "It won't be on my agenda" for next year, he emphasized that 2008 is not the year to have that debate, in New Jersey or elsewhere.

"I don't think I'd like to see this debated in a presidential election year," Corzine said. "It's an incitement to people who will make policies on a whole broad range of issues that will keep the status quo."

Telling the group, " I hope you know I'm on our side," the governor talked about same-sex marriage equality in terms of it being a goal on which he, the journalists, and, in some cases, their readers are in agreement, even if the roadmap needed to be hashed out.

"I think we can move very quickly here, but I think we ought to do it in a way, by the way, that doesn't cause setbacks everywhere else in the country," Corzine said, "that doesn't make it a tool for people who I believe start unjust wars or try to take away children's health insurance or aren't committed to enforcing hate crimes laws and all kinds of other things."

In an introductory chat with perhaps half a dozen of the crowd as he arrived, the governor twice mentioned the 3,500-plus American military service members who have died in Iraq, to underscore the critical need to block the Republican Party from seizing on issues such as same-sex marriage to hold onto the White House and/or regain Congress next year.

Asked by one of the journalists why New Jersey had to wait until the rest of the country was comfortable with same-sex marriage to move, Corzine challenged the assumption of the question, saying that the presidential election year provided opportunities to debate the Defense of Marriage Act and the Don't Ask, Don't Tell military policy.

"I don't want the debate in one state lead us away," he said, from the broader national issues he believes can constructively be discussed during a presidential election.

Significantly, Corzine said 2009, when he must next face New Jersey voters, could be a time to look at advancing the same-sex marriage question.

"It would be a perfectly appropriate thing to ask about," he said, should he stand for re-election that year.

Informed of that statement, Steven Goldstein, the chair of Garden State Equality, New Jersey's LGBT advocacy group that has been pressing hard to make marriage equality a reality, said, "We of course will not have anyone dictate when we will push for a discussion about our families being denied their rights, but if that's the way he feels, we should sit down and meet to draw up a timetable."

To date, Goldstein said, discussions with the governor about moving beyond the civil union law toward full marriage equality have only been "informal."

He also speculated as to whether Corzine had been asked by New York Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, whose presidential bid he supports, to keep the same-sex marriage question off the table next year.

In his remarks, Corzine lauded the efforts made by Goldstein and Garden State Equality on the marriage issue, but said his administration had not received the volume of complaints about the workings of the civil union law that the group says it has seen.

According to GSE, of the 1,514 New Jersey couples who have registered civil unions, 278 have encountered problems in having their partnerships recognized as the law requires. Many of them say their employers have refused to accord them the same partner benefits given to the spouses of employees who are married.

Goldstein said Garden State Equality fields most of the complaints since few people are aware that the civil unions law established a state commission to monitor compliance.

Corzine said that the only such problems that cannot be addressed under the state law relate to those employee benefit programs governed by the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), which he estimated involves about one-quarter of all New Jersey employers. Those businesses could also refuse to cover same-sex spouses, and New Jersey would have no recourse, he said.

Goldstein argued, however, that problems with employers claiming ERISA exemption in Massachusetts have not arisen.

The governor talked about how his office successfully argued to UPS that ERISA did not provide justification for its initial refusal to give civil union partners of its employees spousal benefits.

And, Corzine pledged to continue looking into the refusal of the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association, a Methodist group, to open its beachfront pavilion to same-sex couples looking to hold civil union ceremonies there, despite the fact that the organization receives a special state tax exemption on the property contingent on opening it up for public recreation.

Asked by one of the journalists his thoughts on remedying weaknesses in the state's hate crimes law, the governor conceded he was not familiar with the particular issues involved but pledged to look into the matter.

On the question of whom his preferred presidential candidate, Clinton, should select as a running mate, Corzine suggested the person best able to help the ticket win made the most sense, singling out Governor Ted Strickland of Ohio, Senator Bill Nelson of Florida, and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, currently a presidential hopeful, as possible choices.

Asked whether he thought Larry Craig would have resigned if Idaho had a Democratic governor who would appoint his successor, Corzine said the question was an easy one. He noted that no Republican has suggested that David Vitter, snared in a prostitution scandal, but a GOP senator from Louisiana, which has a Democratic governor, give up his seat.

"The Vitter-Craig hypocrisy is pretty clear," the governor said.

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