Even as Gov. Chris Christie’s threat of a "swift" veto looms, gay-rights activists basked in victory after the state Assembly voted Feb. 16 in favor of legalizing same-gender marriage in New Jersey.
The governor’s office did not immediately say when Christie would respond.
The New Jersey state Senate, which failed to pass a marriage equality bill two years ago, had approved the measure by a 24-16 vote Feb. 13.
"Without question, this is a historic day in the state of New Jersey," said Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex), who, along with Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester), made the measure a top priority.
The Assembly tally of 42-33 included no Republican votes in favor. Two Democrats from Cape May County — Nelson Albano and Matthew Milam — voted against the measure as well. Five lawmakers did not vote.
Working with the gay-rights organization Garden State Equality, UCC pastors had traveled to Trenton to testify before the Senate and Assembly judicial committees Jan. 24 and Feb. 2.
“The action of the New Jersey legislature to pass the marriage-equality bill is a testament to growing momentum turning the tide for equality and justice,” said the Rev. Michael Schuenemeyer, UCC executive for health and wholeness advocacy. “I am deeply grateful for the many people of faith, including leadership form the United Church of Christ, who have been an important part of this struggle.”
The Rev. L.L. DuBreuil –– pastor of Faith UCC in Union, N.J., and a board member of Garden State Equality www.GardenStateEquality.com –– said she was heartened to hear “hours and hours of stirring testimony from our legislators. Many who have been longtime supporters talked passionately about civil rights and the evolving understanding of the nature of marriage.”
DuBreuil said she has presided over many interfaith marriages. “Yet when a couple comes to me of the same gender to be married, the state of New Jersey comes into my sanctuary and requires me to discriminate,” she said. “Our love here on earth is a reflection of God's inclusive love. Get the state out of my sanctuary and let me get on with marrying couples in love.”
Gay-rights activists were joyous after the vote, vowing to fight to overturn Christie’s expected veto. The challenge, however, is expected to be considerable.
Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-Mercer), a sponsor of the bill and one of two openly gay lawmakers, said supporters have until the legislative session ends in January 2014 to garner the nearly dozen more votes needed for an override. He said it had won nearly 10 Assembly votes in recent weeks.
Said DuBreuil, "The window to override a veto will include some of the promised visits as all of us –– lesbian or gay or straight or bisexual or transgender or questioning –– bring human faces and stories of families to our elected officials."
In the Feb. 16 debate leading up to the vote, several lawmakers, including Oliver, said they initially opposed gay marriage or struggled with the decision due to their religious beliefs.
Assemblyman Charles Mainor (D-Hudson) said he once believed voting yes would emotionally harm children and force them into therapy. "I felt this way because I was ignorant," he said. “And I was ignorant because I didn’t educate myself."
Assemblywoman Cleopatra Tucker (D-Essex), a deaconess in her church, also struggled. "In my final hours," she said, “I came to the conclusion that the people sent me from my district here to vote for what was right and to protect all the people … regardless of their gender, race, religion or sexual preference," she said. "This bill today is not a religious issue. It’s a civil-rights issue."
While Christie says he prefers that the issue go before voters, Schuenemeyer said, “These are fundamental rights and, as such, should never be up for a popular vote. I urge Governor Christie to honor the equal dignity and worth of same-gender loving couples by quickly signing the bill into law.”
Gay marriage is legal in six states and the District of Columbia. A Washington state law passed this week will take effect in June.