3 roads to gay marriage in NJ

Outside San Francisco's City Hall, partners John Lewis (left) and Stuart Gaffney embrace shortly before the Supreme Court ruling. (NOAH BERGER / AP)

TRENTON — Gay rights advocates in New Jersey were fired up Thursday in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decisions paving for the way for gay marriage — but they were split into three camps about what to do next.

Although confident that New Jersey’s system of civil unions for gay couples would be replaced with marriage by the end of 2013, advocates and Democratic supporters face a stumbling block in Republican Gov. Christie, who on Wednesday affirmed his opposition to gay marriage and blasted the U.S. Supreme Court decision.

State Sen. Barbara Buono (D., Middlesex), Christie’s opponent in the November election, called his opposition “spineless.” As the Democrats’ candidate she is the de facto standard-bearer for the party, but she was a lonely voice Thursday in calling for an immediate override of Christie’s 2012 veto of a gay marriage bill.

The Legislature would need 15 more votes — mostly from Republicans — in order to achieve an override, and Buono told a rally outside the Statehouse Thursday morning that such a vote should happen that very afternoon.

“For anyone who needs \[political\] cover, well they’ve got it now: Our Supreme Court gave it to them,” Buono said.

Buono’s pro-gay marriage colleagues disagreed. Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) did not post the bill Thursday, and long-time gay rights proponent state Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D., Union) said supporters should first try to win in the courts.

That effort has already begun. A court filing related to New Jersey’s civil unions law is scheduled to be made next week.

New Jersey civil unions are intended to provide the rights of marriage without calling it marriage. But while the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that gay married couples should be given the same considerations under federal law as straight married couples, it leaves those in civil unions without 1,138 federal rights, advocates said.

For example, they said gays in New Jersey cannot file joint income tax returns or sponsor a partner for immigration, as gay married couples in other states now can.

“Traveling in and around America, our civil rights fade in and out like cell phone reception,” said gay activist Jay Lassiter of Cherry Hill.

Advocates say that this lack of equality now makes civil unions illegal under federal law. To that end, the gay-rights group Lambda Legal will file a motion July 3 in Mercer County Superior Court. Oral arguments are scheduled for Aug. 15.

The case could end up in the New Jersey Supreme Court, where advocates were convinced they would be rewarded with marriage.

Aside from a veto override and the courts, there’s a third road toward gay marriage.

The state’s first openly gay lawmaker, Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D., Mercer), said he knew of six Assembly members who would change their votes and support an override. But that wouldn’t be enough, so he said he wants the question posted on the November ballot.

That was Christie’s suggestion, too, in his veto message last year. Christie said Wednesday that he would vote “no” in the voting booth, but only the people should be able to change a “an institution that’s over 2,000 years old.”

Yet gay rights advocates have long been opposed to putting “civil rights,” as they say, up for popular vote.

When the issue came up Thursday during a Statehouse news conference packed with gay rights supporters, one woman screamed: “No ballot for civil rights!”

Regardless of how gay marriage in New Jersey happens, supporters believe it is only a matter of when.

Gusciora said he even believes Christie wants gay marriage.

“I think he lives in New Jersey in the 21st century. I’m sure he has gay relatives and friends and believes they have the same rights as any other couple,” Gusciora said.

But Republicans are fearful of political repercussions. he said.

“I think they know where their bread is buttered — or where they get their peanuts for their trunks,” he said, referencing the GOP elephant.