Battle Lines Drawn in NJ Over Same-Sex 'Marriage'

By Jeff McKay | July 7, 2008 | 8:31pm EDT

( - The New Jersey Supreme Court's decision to have the state Legislature tackle the issue of same-sex "marriage" has divided an already partisan state Senate and Assembly, and the repercussions may impact New Jersey's bitterly contested U.S. Senate race.

Already some Democrats are lining up to cosponsor a bill which would allow New Jersey to join Massachusetts in allowing same-sex marriages. State Assembly Democrats Reed Gusciora, Brian Stack, and Speaker Pro-Tem Wilfredo Caraballo have announced they would bring the bill into the Assembly as early as next week.

According to the ruling handed down by the court, the New Jersey Legislature has 180 days to decide if the state will legalize same-sex marriage. If not, the legislature must pass laws establishing civil unions that provide the same rights and benefits that married heterosexuals enjoy.

While some Democrats are rushing to bring same-sex marriage to New Jersey, others in the party are taking a more cautious approach.

"This issue comes at a time when the Assembly and state Senate has a lot on its plate," David Rebovich, managing director of the Rider University Institute for New Jersey Politics, told Cybercast News Service.

"The key issues of property taxes, high insurance rates, and ethics are important to voters," Rebovich said. "With statewide mid-term elections next year, now these key issues will be taking a back seat to this court decision. For many, this is the last thing they wanted."

The latest poll in New Jersey on same-sex marriage (conducted in June by the Eagleton Institute at Rutgers University) found that 50 percent of state residents supported same-sex marriage, while 44 percent opposed it.

Some divisions are starting to form within majority ranks.

Majority Assembly Leader Joseph Roberts and Senate Majority Leader and former acting Gov. Richard Codey issued a joint statement casting doubt on whether the measure by their Democratic colleagues could be approved before the 180-day deadline.

"Given the fact that it took the judicial system nearly four years to come up with a 4-3 split decision, we think the determination by only four justices that the entire Legislature is obligated to respond within 180 days is unreasonable," they said in a joint statement.

State Republicans are standing firm against same-sex marriage, and many believe this will distract the lawmakers from handling issues such as property taxes.

"I urge the Legislature to consider the constitutional amendment I have sponsored that would define marriage in New Jersey as being only between a man and a woman," said Republican State Assemblyman Guy Gregg.

"Not only does this reflect the intent of the current law, but it also would give New Jersey voters a chance to have a voice in this matter when the issue comes to the ballot for a vote."

Conservative State Assemblyman Richard Merkt believes the state Supreme Court judges violated their judicial oath due to the use of their personal preferences and should be charged with judicial misconduct.

Democrats control the New Jersey Assembly 49-31 and the Senate 22-18.

The candidates for New Jersey's hotly contested U.S. Senate race also spoke out on the issue. While Republican Tom Kean, Jr. took a stand, his challenger, Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez did not say whether he was for or against the court's decision.

"I still believe that marriage is and should be between one man and one woman, and I would support an amendment to the state Constitution reaffirming that definition. The eyes of the country are on New Jersey," said Kean.

"I have always believed that marriage is between a man and a woman, and I have also always supported civil unions that allow couples with a lifetime commitment to each other to get full legal benefits, such as the right to visit each other in the hospital," said Menendez.

"The Supreme Court affirmed those rights today, and it is now up to the Legislature to decide how they are to be administered. I will not support any constitutional amendment that takes away people's legal rights," he said.

"Menendez is probably playing this the right way, supporting civil rights but not coming out and saying he is for it or against it," said Rebovich. "However, I suspect this is probably the last thing both candidates wanted to happen just two weeks before the election."

Since both houses are Democrat-controlled, the distinct possibility is that a bill either reaffirming civil unions or legalizing same-sex marriage may end up on the desk of Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine, leaving the governor to face a serious dilemma.

"This would be a lose-lose situation [for Corzine]," said Rebovich.

"He would have a hard time vetoing a same-sex marriage decision against his own party. On the other hand, if same-sex marriage were to pass, it could impact a 2007 mid-term election where all Assembly and a number of key state Senate seats will be up for grabs."

Corzine is on record as being supportive of civil unions, but not same-sex marriage.

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