TRENTON, NJ -- A bill that would make New Jersey the sixth state to legalize "gay marriage" squeaked through a Senate committee Monday and will be debated in the full body Thursday in what is expected to be a close vote.
The 40-member Senate is viewed as the last major hurdle for the bill (S1967), which is favored to pass the Assembly and which Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine -- who leaves office Jan. 19 -- has pledged to sign. Democrats control the Senate 23-17 and the Assembly 47-33.
The bill is part of a nationwide strategy by homosexual groups to legalize "gay marriage" in all 50 states -- something that Christian groups say would have a devastating impact on religious freedom. The bill's supporters are rushing to get the bill to Corzine before Republican Gov.-elect Chris Christie -- who opposes "gay marriage" and who defeated Corzine on Election Day -- takes office. New Jersey would become the most populous state to change the definition of marriage.
The Senate Judiciary Committee passed the bill 7-6, with one Republican, Sen. Bill Baroni, joining six Democrats in supporting it. Two Democrats -- Sens. Paul Sarlo and John Girgenti -- voted with four Republicans in opposing it.
In addition to Sarlo and Girgenti, two other Democrats, Sens. Ronald Rice Sr. and Jeff Van Drew, say they'll vote no. That means that if the remaining 16 Republicans vote in bloc against the bill -- which is not certain -- it will end no worse than a 20-20 tie and won't pass. Brian Brown, executive director of the National Organization for Marriage, which opposes the bill, told Baptist Press there are other Democrats he thinks will oppose the bill but they won't make their position known until the vote.
He also said the committee vote was "pretty good news" for his side because of the two Democrats' "no" votes.
"Those are votes the other side is going to need [on the floor]," Brown said. "Bill Baroni is the only Republican that has come out to support this. We are working hard to make sure that other Republicans [oppose it]. I don't think they'll have the votes on Thursday. I'm cautiously optimistic."
Like it did in New York a week ago -- when a "gay marriage" bill was defeated in that state's Senate -- the National Organization for Marriage is pressuring Republican senators in New Jersey to oppose the bill. It launched a $500,000 radio ad campaign Nov. 23 targeting key districts.
"We've spent the last two weeks basically letting people throughout the state know that, these are the Republicans that you need to call, that you need to talk to," Brown said. "I think that a lot of these Republicans who might have been on the fence [have been impacted by] their constituents' calls."
Corzine made his support for the bill part of his campaign promises, although the legislature did not begin pushing the bill until after the election. Corzine's lame duck status was criticized during Monday's hearing. Republican Sen. Gerald Cardinale, who voted against the bill, said Corzine's mandate was "revoked soundly" by the voters.
"In my view and in the view of many, such a governor should be doing nothing but routine business of a non-policy-making, non-partisan nature," Cardinale said. "To attempt to engage in controversial, far-reaching, almost civilization-changing public policy decisions speaks to a character flaw beyond comparison. If Jon Corzine signs any such legislation before leaving office, he will confirm the public's worst view of government -- 'Yes, it's legal, but that doesn't make it right.' We will be turning a deaf ear to the voice of the electorate. We will give great lip service to the value of having people vote."
Cardinale urged the committee to put the issue before voters. Unlike other states such as California, New Jersey law does not allow citizens to collect signatures and put issues on the ballot. If the bill becomes law, it can only be reversed by legislative action.
"We have no such mechanism available to the people of New Jersey. Are they second-class citizens?" Cardinale asked. "... One [public opinion] poll says the public is in favor of [gay marriage] and another poll says the public is not in favor of.... [Let's] put it to the only poll that counts."
The committee did pass an amendment aimed at protecting churches and religious organizations from being forced to perform or assist in "gay marriages," but critics said such protections already exist and that the amendment does nothing to protect, for instance, a photography business whose owners are morally opposed to "gay marriage."
"Gay marriage" is legal in five states: Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and Iowa. Those states changed their law either through court or legislative action. The issue has never passed on the ballot, where it is 0-for-31.