N.J. legislature gets unwelcome gay-union issue

State high court ruling sets 180-day deadline

October 27, 2006|By Ellen Barry | Ellen Barry,LOS ANGELES TIMES

New York -- Three years ago, when Assemblywoman Loretta Weinberg decided to sponsor a domestic partnership law for gay and lesbian couples in New Jersey, the big surprise was how little fuss it caused.

There were no picketers outside the legislature, no furious attacks by the opposition. When the bill was passed, she said, "I looked back, and I maybe had one nasty e-mail in the entire two years we worked on that."

In this quiet way, the state has gradually become known as a haven for gays and lesbians seeking legal protection. By tradition, New Jersey's lawmakers have tended to bypass national ideological battles, reserving their energy for such issues as property taxes.

But Wednesday's state Supreme Court ruling, which gave the state legislature 180 days to decide whether same-sex couples should be allowed to marry, has set the stage for six months of intense pressure.

"My guess is, most of our legislators today were tearing their hair out and saying, `We don't need this,'" said Ruth Mandel, director of Rutgers University's Eagleton Institute for Politics. In November 2007, she noted, all 120 members of the legislature are up for re-election.

New Jersey's highest court ruled that the state's constitution guaranteed same-sex couples the same benefits enjoyed by married couples but did not resolve the question of whether their unions should be called "marriage." The justices left that decision to legislators, who have 180 days to expand the definition of marriage to include same-sex unions or establish "civil unions" for gay couples, as Vermont has.

The decision drew fire from conservative leaders, including President Bush, who made a rare reference to the issue at a fundraiser yesterday for a Republican congressional candidate in Des Moines.

"Yesterday, in New Jersey, we had another activist court issue a ruling that raises doubts about the institution of marriage," he said. "I believe that marriage is a union between a man and a woman. And I believe it's a sacred institution that is critical to the health of our society and the well-being of families and it must be defended."

The high court ruling enraged state Sen. Gerald Cardinale, a Republican, who has twice proposed a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, only to see his bill languish in committee. Cardinale said it was "unthinkable" for the court to dictate actions to the legislature.

"This is not a mere interpretation of the Constitution; this is a change in the direction of our civilization that they are ordering," he said.

Leaders of both legislative houses said they would not allow any vote that would overturn the Supreme Court's ruling. By yesterday, however, it was clear that most legislators would opt for civil unions instead of marriage. Gov. Jon Corzine said he would prefer that outcome, though he would not veto a gay marriage bill.

Weinberg said she respects her colleagues' reverence for the word "marriage." "But there's another part of me that says, why? If it means the same thing, what's the difference?"

She said she is willing to compromise: "If we can only get 41 votes by calling them civil unions, that's what we'll do."

That compromise would fall perfectly in line with voters, said Nathaniel Persily, a professor of law and political science at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied gay marriage and public opinion. When Massachusetts' Supreme Judicial Court legalized gay marriage in 2003, it sparked a nationwide backlash against the idea - even in Massachusetts.

Now, Persily said, that backlash is over. Support of gay marriage itself is still growing at a "glacial pace" of about 1 percent a year, mostly from generational replacement.

Cardinale, who opposes gay marriage, saw an explanation:. "They donate a lot of money."

He said he hopes the gay marriage decision will rouse conservatives in the state: "For most of the legislators, they're not so wedded to this concept in either direction that they're going to ignore their constituents."

Ellen Barry writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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