2011 - The Year We Take Back Congress and Make Obama's Life Hell!

Friday, December 15, 2006

Pink is the New Blue (State)

N.J. legislature OKs civil-union bill

By Troy Graham
Inquirer Staff Writer

Both houses of the New Jersey Legislature passed a civil-union bill yesterday, moving the state closer to becoming the fifth to extend some marriage rights to same-sex couples.

Gov. Corzine has said he would sign the bill, but wouldn't say when.

Gay-rights activists and same-sex couples, who have opposed civil unions - demanding full marriage rights instead - described yesterday's vote as a stepping-stone to gay marriage. Two years ago, the Legislature passed a domestic partnership bill for same-sex couples.

"We'll be back here in two years - tops," said Steven Goldstein, chair of Garden State Equality. "The jump from civil unions to marriage will be far easier than the jump from domestic partnerships to civil unions."

Many key lawmakers said they would have supported a gay-marriage bill, but they didn't think it had enough support in the Legislature. Civil unions, however, sailed through both houses - 56-19 in the Assembly and 23-12 in the Senate.

"This is, by no means, the end," said Senate President Richard J. Codey (D., Essex). "But it is a major step forward."

Opponents of the legislation deplored its swift passage and said it should have been put to voters.

The civil-unions bill has no residency requirement, which could put pressure on neighboring states, Goldstein said. He said Pennsylvania, in particular, takes a hard line against gay couples.

"The Delaware River might as well be 500 miles in terms of gay marriage," he said. "A couple in Pennsylvania is a three-minute ride over the Ben Franklin from New Jersey... what happens when they get a civil union in New Jersey and go back to Pennsylvania?"

No one in Harrisburg could answer that question yesterday.

Pennsylvania has a Defense of Marriage law, which means the state doesn't have to honor gay marriages from other states. But that law says nothing about civil unions, said Kevin Harley, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office.

"The legal question becomes whether a civil union gets treated as a marriage or not," he said. "That hasn't been litigated yet, so no one knows."

In a landmark decision, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled in October that the state must extend marriage rights to gay couples. The court gave lawmakers 180 days to sort out the details, prompting one lawmaker to say yesterday that the Legislature had "a judicial gun to its head."

But, lawmakers passed the civil unions just 10 days after the bill was introduced - and with only two public comment periods. Both opponents and supporters of gay marriage derided the fast passage of the bill, saying legislators, facing an election year in 2007, wanted to dispense with such a politically sensitive issue quickly.

"The people of New Jersey still want to weigh in on this issue and, here we are, right before the holidays, cramming this through," said Assemblyman Michael Doherty (R., Warren). "The people of New Jersey have a right to vote on this, one of the most important issue facing our society."

Corzine said he had no problem with the swift passage.

"I think it's important in the financial lives of a whole lot of folks," he said. "You're creating a hardship if you delay... . I think we're doing the right thing."

Civil unions would give same-sex couples hospital visitation rights and inheritance rights, among others enjoyed by married couples.

"As corny as it sounds, what we are doing today is nothing short of saying, 'Love matters,' " said Assemblyman Wilfredo Caraballo (D., Essex), a chief sponsor of the bill. "And, furthermore, we are saying the gender of whom one loves shouldn't matter to the state."

Opponents said that civil unions discriminate against other people who live together, but can't marry, such as siblings. (The TrekMedic pauses and thinks "Berks County is in New Jersey?")

"Why would they not be included by the Supreme Court? Why would they not be included in the wisdom of this body?" asked Assemblyman Guy Gregg (R., Morris). "It is not equal protection and I say, thankfully, it is not marriage."

Few believe that civil unions will be the last word on gay-marriage in New Jersey. Same-sex couples could sue, saying civil unions don't meet the Supreme Court's mandate. Gay-marriage opponents also could sue on behalf of cohabiting couples who can't marry.

"You haven't resolved anything," said John Tomicki, president of the New Jersey Coalition to Preserve and Protect Marriage. "Our position is going to be, from the get-go, let the public decide what constitutes a marriage."

Tomicki and Goldstein both agreed the bill passed too quickly. They said they would go on a public tour together to speak about the bill - despite their opposing views.

Goldstein also said his organization was going to launch a marketing campaign and offer bus tours of the state to encourage gay couples to move to New Jersey and become civil partners.

"Gay people love Bruce Springsteen too," he said.

Only Massachusetts allows gay couples to marry, after a court ruling there. But, Goldstein predicted that New Jersey would become the first state to pass a law allowing gay marriage.

Corzine, though, said he did not necessarily see civil unions as the first step to gay marriage.

"I don't know if that's how I'd frame it," he said. "I've been for civil unions for a long time because I think other elements are divisive in getting the core civil rights that are at stake here."

Contact staff writer Troy Graham at 856-779-3893 or tgraham@phillynews.com.

The TrekMedic ponders:

If the TrekMedic remembers correctly, isn't the role of the judiciary to declare the validity of existing laws, not to force the legislation of new laws?

Hmm,..the TrekMedic must've missed something back in civics class in high school. Come to think of it, do they even TEACH civics anymore in high schools?


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