Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Effort to Legalize Gay Marriages in New Jersey May be Faltering - NYTimes.com

Effort to Legalize Gay Marriages in New Jersey May be Faltering - NYTimes.com

By DAVID KOCIENIEWSKI

It was not on the ballot, nor was it a top-tier issue in the New Jersey governor’s race this fall, but the push to legalize same-sex marriage in the state could become a casualty of the election results.

Just weeks ago, Democrats, who control both houses of the Legislature, spoke confidently about their intention to pass a marriage-equality bill after the election and send it to Gov. Jon S. Corzine, a fellow Democrat who had promised to sign it even if he was not re-elected.

But when lawmakers returned to Trenton on Monday for the first time since Mr. Corzine was defeated by Christopher J. Christie, a Republican who opposes gay marriage, a few Democratic legislators appeared to be wavering in their support, setting off an emotional blitz of lobbying and backroom bargaining.

Some Democratic legislative leaders — including the majority leader, Stephen M. Sweeney, who will become Senate president in January — have said that they view Governor Corzine’s loss as a gauge of the public’s unease with the troubled economy, and fear that voters might resent elected officials who appear distracted by social issues. He said he did not think this was the right time to enact the bill.

Other Democrats worried that if they passed a same-sex-marriage bill while Mr. Corzine was on his way out of office, they might anger voters, energize Mr. Christie’s conservative base and alienate socially traditional Democrats.

With Mr. Christie scheduled to take office on Jan. 19, supporters of the proposal are under pressure to move quickly. Lawmakers and gay-rights advocates say they are confident they can get the measure through the General Assembly.

But Senate Democrats met to discuss the measure on Monday and — despite intense lobbying from a coalition of gay-rights advocates and other groups — did not schedule it for a vote, because they appeared unable to muster the 21 votes needed to pass it. A few Republicans have said they may support the bill, but several of the 23 Democrats have expressed reservations about it. Senator Loretta Weinberg, a sponsor of the bill, who spent the fall campaigning as Mr. Corzine’s running mate, said that despite her colleagues’ post-election apprehensions, she believed that lawmakers would make New Jersey the latest state to legalize gay marriage.

“This is an issue of fairness,” she said. “It’s not like we’re going to miss out on a chance to fix the economy during the lame-duck session because we’re spending a couple of hours debating this. It is a matter of civil rights.”

Although New Jersey is regarded as one of the nation’s most liberal and socially tolerant states, the push to move from its current law legalizing civil unions to same-sex marriage has been heated. Polls show that a slight majority of voters favor gay marriage, but opponents of the measure have been aggressive in taking aim at lawmakers from both parties who have voiced support for same-sex marriage, especially those whose districts include conservative communities.

At least 75 opponents of the bill descended on the Capitol on Monday for a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting, though no marriage bill was on the agenda.

“It would weaken marriage for everyone” said Moshe Bressler, 38, of Lakewood, an Orthodox Jew who said his religious beliefs made him oppose it.

Supporters of the bill responded by mobilizing about 250 people at the State House, where they handed out leaflets, buttonholed legislators and met on the steps for a rally.

Steven Goldstein, head of Garden State Equality, said he was upset by Democrats who had grown “weak-kneed” since Mr. Corzine’s defeat. Mr. Goldstein warned that gay New Jerseyans, who have become a significant source of fund-raising and support for many Democrats, would exact a price if party leaders did not deliver on their promise to pass the marriage bill.

“If the Democrats don’t enact marriage equality now, after years of telling us to wait, wait, wait, it will cause a huge schism between the state Democratic Party and not just the gay community, but the entire progressive base,” he said. “And it could change the political landscape of New Jersey permanently.”

Gay-rights groups have been campaigning extensively for years to win legalization of same-sex marriage and announced Monday that they would release two new radio ads highlighting the stories of gay couples who have been denied health care coverage and other legal and social benefits granted to married couples.

Reed Gusciora, a Democrat from Princeton who sponsored a same-sex marriage bill in the Assembly, said he still held out hope that lawmakers would view it as a matter of civil rights and approve it.

“Certain members are putting political expediency before public policy,” he said. “But this issue is a lot like the Corzine-Christie race: it could go either way.”

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