TRENTON — The state Senate rejected — by a vote of 14 to 20, with six senators not voting — a bill sponsored by Sen. Raymond Lesniak aimed at legalizing gay marriage in New Jersey.
The debate over same-sex marriage peaked as the state senate prepared to vote on a bill entitled “The Freedom of Religion and Equality in Civil Marriage Act” sponsored by Lesniak, who wept during his floor speech advocating homosexual weddings.
“With today’s vote in the state Senate, the New Jersey legislature defaulted on its constitutional obligation to provide same-sex couples in New Jersey equal protection, as unanimously mandated by the New Jersey Supreme Court in 2006,” said Steven Goldstein, president of Garden State Equality, the group that spearheaded the push for same sex marriage.
“That’s why we at Garden State Equality are here with our partner Lambda Legal, which has an extraordinary track record of advancing LGBT civil rights in the courts,” said Goldstein, who announced that the two organizations are going back to court.
Five states now allow same-sex unions. The measure was defeated by a vote of 14 to 20, with six senators not voting and Gov.-elect Chris Christie says he will not sign a same sex marriage bill into law.
Sen. Diane Allen, who is suffering from cancer, was absent as was GOP Sen. Andrew R. Ciesla
“Three spineless Democrats stayed on the fence, James Beach of Cherry Hill, incoming Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney and Paul A. Sarlo,” said one disappointed observer.
New Jersey took center stage in the debate over same-sex marriage as the state senate considered the bill but prior to the vote, Lesniak said he expected trouble ahead for Democrats.
“The way I look at it to a large extent is the Democratic Party in this state has lost its moral compass,” said Lesniak. “We have to get that back. And if you don’t start standing up for principles and beliefs, civil rights and human rights, then we’re going to have difficulty in the elections coming up.”
Some advocates made several impassioned pleas based on equality and civil rights.
Sen. Barbara Bouno of Edison concluded her remarks in support of the bill saying, “I ask you to cast a vote for liberty and justice for all.
“Sen. Robert Gordon quoted James Madison, who wrote in The Federalist Papers, “It is of great importance in a republic not only to guard the society against the oppression of its rulers, but to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part… If a majority be united by a common interest, the rights of the minority will be insecure.”
Sen. Nia Gill of Montclair reminded lawmakers that not long ago the United States Supreme Court, in the 1967 Loving v. Virginia decision, overturned the one year prison sentence of a black woman and white man convicted under a statute that prohibited interracial couples from being married out of state and then returning to Virginia.
Responding to lawmakers who want a referendum Lesniak referred to women’s suffrage, “just as the New Jersey legislature did in 1914, when the voters rejected women’s right to vote by a 58%-42% margin.”
“Unless we vote for marriage equality, we will be interfering with the religious beliefs of many of our citizens,” he said before ending his speech choking back tears while reading a letter from a constituent thanking him for fighting for the right of his brother to marry.
Sen. Bill Baroni, the only Republican who supported the bill, said civil unions were not enough, and that “separate but equal” was clearly wrong.
“That is textbook, old-fashioned discrimination,” Baroni said.
Meanwhile, opponents had plenty to say. Sen. Gerald Cardinale delivered a fiery speech warning that enactment of the bill will leade to legalized polygamy.
“In every state where it has been put on the ballot, the voters have voted to maintain marriage as between one man and one woman.” Cardinale said.
The approach was disputed by Sen. Sean Kean, a longtime holdout whose Asbury Park district includes many gay voters, announced he would oppose the bill only moments before the vote. “We don’t need to put it on the ballot,” said Sean Kean. “I believe we are elected to make these tough decisions.”
Nearly one thousand supporters and opponents of the bill held rallies outside the Statehouse and watched the floor action.
Even as the vote neared, Sen. Joseph Vitale said, “I’m just undecided for a number of reasons, personal and professional.” Vitale told reporters it would be one of the few times he went into a session not knowing how he stood on a major piece of legislation.
Ultimately, the Woodbridge Democrat voted for the legislation, along with other local Democrats Sen. Nicholas Scutari and Sen. Bob Smith.
Union County Republicans Sen. Tom Kean Jr. voted against the measure.
State Sens. James Beach, Paul Sarlo and Stephen Sweeney abstained. Two Senators, Diane Allen and Andrew Ciesla were absent. The Senate has one vacancy.
The measure, which would have made the state the sixth in the U.S. to allow same-sex marriage, needed 21 votes to pass the 40-member Senate.
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