Legislators Vote for Gay Unions in N.J.
By LAURA MANSNERUS
Published: December 15, 2006
TRENTON, Dec. 14 — The Legislature voted on Thursday to make New Jersey the third state in the nation to recognize civil unions for same-sex couples. In doing so, it moved quickly to fulfill a court mandate to provide equal rights to gay couples but frustrated people on both sides of the emotional issue.
Gov. Jon S. Corzine, who is expected to sign the measure into law, said, “I think we’re doing the right thing.”
In joining Vermont and Connecticut in establishing the parallel institution of civil unions, New Jersey shunned the option of opening marriage to same-sex couples. Massachusetts is the only state that allows gay marriage, and it has a residency requirement; some same-sex couples have married in Canada.
New Jersey’s new unions, which would take effect 60 days after the governor gives the nod, would expand on the domestic partnership arrangements the state has had since 2004. Gay couples would gain benefits like adoption privileges, inheritance rights and the ability to take a partner’s surname without going to court.
But gay-rights advocates continued to contend Thursday that the separate institutions were inherently unequal and promised to keep pushing for nothing short of marriage itself.
“We’re planning a massive rally the day the civil union law takes effect, to pre-empt the idea that this is a day for celebration,” said Steven Goldstein, the chairman of Garden State Equality, a gay-rights group.
Still, about 20 supporters of gay rights who had gathered in the gallery for the hourlong floor debate cheered when the Assembly voted 56 to 19 in midafternoon to approve the measure. They also applauded when Assemblyman Reed Gusciora, a Princeton Democrat, said, “The distance between nothing and civil unions is greater than the distance between civil unions and marriage.”
But Assemblyman Ronald S. Dancer, a Republican from Ocean County, said that the bill was an affront to the Bible, and that “this is one time that I cannot compromise my personal beliefs and faiths.”
The Senate passed the bill 23 to 12.
The civil union law was written under pressure, in response to a directive by the New Jersey Supreme Court seven weeks ago that the state grant gay and lesbian couples exactly the same financial benefits and legal rights as married heterosexual couples.
The Supreme Court gave the Legislature 180 days to decide whether gay couples should be allowed to marry or placed on a separate, parallel track. Both houses quickly settled on the civil union route, sending it through in just 10 days from introduction to final votes.
While the Legislature was instructed not to fall short of equality in the benefits it extended, conservatives lobbied to reserve the word “marriage” for heterosexuals, and on Thursday Republicans tried unsuccessfully to amend the bill to define marriage as the union of one man and one woman.
“I believe the foundation of our state is families, marriage, one man, one woman,” said Senator Robert W. Singer, the Republican from Jackson who sponsored the amendment proposal. “Why do you want to crumble that? We’re not taking away anyone’s rights, just sanctifying what marriage is.”
Without the amendment, the legislation leaves open the possibility of allowing same-sex marriage.
“Give us two to five years,” said Assemblyman Wilfredo Caraballo, the Newark Democrat who introduced the civil unions measure. “In a year and a half or two years we’ll see that the world hasn’t collapsed, heterosexuals are still getting married and God hasn’t thrown fire and brimstone on us.”
Mr. Caraballo said proponents of gay marriage could not have pushed through a full marriage bill by the court’s deadline in April.
He noted that just three years ago, it was a struggle to enact the limited package of rights and benefits that characterize domestic partnerships. “We had to twist arms to get 41 votes,” he said.
But Mr. Goldstein pointed to the legislators, including some Republicans, who had said the civil union bill did not go far enough. “Today’s debate for civil unions could be summed up in two words: buyer’s remorse, for legislators who wish they were voting for full marriage equality,” he said.
David Buckel, of the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, said after the Senate vote, “This law hit with a dull thud.”
Mr. Buckel represents the couples whose lawsuit led to the Oct. 25 Supreme Court decision, in which the justices held unanimously that to deny them the full rights accorded married heterosexual couples violated their equal protection rights. He said he would consult his clients about going to the court again to argue that the new law does not meet its mandate.
Few legislators have said explicitly that they oppose civil unions. In the floor debate Thursday, several Republicans raised other objections (no Democrat voted against the measure).
Assemblyman Richard A. Merkt of Morris County contended that the Supreme Court had overreached, saying, “I expect once again this Legislature will surrender its authority as it has many times in the last 40 years.”
Social conservatives had focused their efforts on retaining the traditional definition of marriage. Len Deo, the president of the New Jersey Family Policy Council, said at a news conference Thursday with Senator Singer that the civil union bill “moves us toward same-sex marriage.”
“People have a right to rights,” Mr. Deo said, “but they don’t have a right to redefine an institution that’s served us well for 2,000 years.”
Wonder how long before this one degenerates and gets locked?