As the New Jersey Judiciary Senate Committee prepares to take up a bill permitting same-sex marriage in the state next Tuesday, the debate surrounding the proposed legislation is heating up, with observers on both sides expressing uncertainty about the number of legislators actually in support of the bill.
Democrats introduced a same-sex marriage bill – the Marriage Equality and Religious Exemption Act – last week, despite seeing a similar bill defeated two years prior. Advocates of the bill, which aims to end same-sex civil unions and redefine "marraige" to include couples of the same gender, say the public has expressed support for same-sex marriage – a claim validated by a Quinnipiac poll released Thursday that found 52 percent of New Jersey residents were in favor of such unions.
Gov. Chris Christie has remained mum on the issue, and said Thursday he would make a prudent decision – if the bill even reaches his desk.
"I think this type of societal change is something we need to do very deliberately and have as much public input as we possibly can," Christie told WNYC.
Christie has stated his opposition to same-sex marriage, but experts believe the Republican governor will remain silent until the bill is on his desk due to an increased national profile.
A Christie veto could be overridden by a two-thirds majority vote in both the N.J. State Senate and Assembly. Supporters welcomed claims from one the bill's sponsors, Sen. Raymond Lesniak, on Thursday that he believed there was already a strong majority in the statehouse in favor of same-sex marriage.
Len Deo, president of the New Jersey Family Policy Council (NJPRC), said the optimism is baseless and support in the statehouse is not as prevalent as reports have suggested.
"I don't believe that they will get enough votes," Deo told The Christian Post. "They'd have to move a lot of Republicans and from what I'm hearing right now we believe that they won't get the votes. They may able to get simple majorities but even that right now is based on anybody's best guess."
Sen. Lesniak believes there are between 24-27 senators in favor of the bill – 27 are needed in the 40-seat Senate to reach the veto override.
Steven Goldstein, chair and CEO of gay rights group Garden State Equality, said there is more support for this bill than the one defeated in 2010, but that expectations should be tempered.
"Having lived through this once, where it didn't pass, if you told me that we had every member [of the Senate and Assembly] in support of the bill, I'd still be a neurotic mess," Goldstein told CP.
"We don't count our matzo balls before they're cooked. So we're cautiously optimistic that we have enough votes to pass the bill to get it to the governor's desk," Goldstein added. "As each day passes, it seems that what was once a long shot in potentially overriding a gubernatorial veto becomes less of a long shot. We're very realistic."
Deo said that if the bill was written to define marriage in the traditional manner – as a union between a man and a woman – that there would be no debate about its passage.
"Gov. Christie has always indicated that he doesn't support same-sex marriage," Deo said. "We believe that if a constitutional amendment that defines marriage as a union of man and woman were presented to voters, that it would pass handily."
At the center of the debate is the discussion of whether civil unions work for same-sex couples. Proponents of same-sex marriage, like Goldstein and Democratic lawmakers, say current legislation unfairly penalizes homosexual couples in myriad ways.
"Thirty-five million Americans in six states and the District of Columbia now live in states with marriage equality," Goldstein said. "Marriage equality is no longer an experiment. It's civil unions that are the experiment because civil unions are failing because hospitals and insurance companies and [other public institutions] don't recognize civil unions. The law is no longer new."
Opponents like Deo and NJPRC, the National Organization for Marriage and the N.J. Knights of Columbus, say civil unions work and should be considered a fair compromise between respecting traditional marriage and supporting same-sex couples.
"Civil unions are working but there is a very small minority of homosexual activists that are crying that civil unions are not working and because they have a powerful voice, legislators are hearing that," Deo said.
The N.J. Family Policy Council president said if same-sex couples have been treated unfairly by civil union regulations, then they have failed to express their discontent well.
"In the state of New Jersey, when they passed the legislation, there was a remedy for civil union couples who felt that their civil union was not being treated properly, to file a complaint with the Civil Rights Commission," Deo explained. "There have been, since 2007, a little ever 5,400 civil unions performed. Of those 5,400, 15 complaints have been filed and of those, 12 have been resolved."
"The court has ruled couples can call their 'marriage' whatever they want and they get every single right heterosexual couples get. A great injustice is being done to the people of New Jersey. It's a big charade," Deo insisted.
Both NJPRC and Garden State Equality plan to descend upon the statehouse in Trenton next Tuesday. Garden State Equality is calling for LGBT New Jerseyans who believe they have been treated unfairly by the civil union system to speak at the hearing.
NJPRC urged pro-family supporters to talk with legislators, rally outside the statehouse and spread word about the issue to other supporters.
Based on current language in the bill, religious exemptions to the proposed bill allow clergy to refuse to perform same-sex marriages without fear of legal penalty or lawsuits; a similar clause is included for any "religious society, institution or organization, or any employee thereof" who choose to refuse services for same-sex couples seeking to get married.
The other lawmakers sponsoring the Marriage Equality and Religious Exemption Act are Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) and Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Cumberland, Gloucester and Salem).
Six states and the District of Columbia already allow same-sex marriage.