Assembly Committee Advances Democrats’ Marriage Equality Bill

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TRENTON – An Assembly committee advanced legislation proposed by Assembly Democrats to allow same-sex couples to marry in New Jersey was released 5-2 Thursday by an Assembly committee.

The bill (A-1) – titled the Marriage Equality and Religious Exemption Act – would eliminate the civil unions that have been in place since 2007, and instead define marriage as the legally recognized union of two consenting people in a committed relationship.

The legislation also expressly stipulates that no clergy of any religion authorized to solemnize marriage, nor any religious society, institution or organization in the state, would be required to conduct any marriage in violation of their free exercise of religion.

Gov. Chris Christie has said that he would veto the bill if the Legislature passes it. He prefers to leave the issue of gay marriage to New Jersey voters through a ballot referendum.

The bill is sponsored by Assembly Democratic lawmakers Reed Gusciora, Speaker Sheila Oliver, Connie Wagner, Mila Jasey, John McKeon, Valerie Vainieri Huttle, Jason O’Donnell, Deputy Speaker John Wisniewski and Timothy Eustace.

“The creation of civil unions has produced a separate-but-equal system, and as we know from our history classes, separate-but-equal is as unconstitutional as it is inherently unequal,” said bill sponsor Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-Mercer/Hunterdon). “This law would make a significant difference in providing equality to same-sex New Jersey couples and their children.”

“New Jersey has a civil union law, but all of the evidence has shown us that it falls far short in providing true equality,” said Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex/Passaic). “Civil unions send a message to the public that same-sex couples and their families are not equal to married couples in the eyes of the law. It sends a message that same-sex couples are not good enough to warrant equality. This is the same message we heard from Jim Crow segregation laws. Separate treatment was wrong then. Separate treatment is wrong now.”

The sponsors noted six states and the District of Columbia, together comprising 35 million Americans, allow same-sex couples to marry.

“We cannot single out a group of people and deem them undeserving of the same legal and economic protections others enjoy,” said Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex). “We were reminded Monday of what true courage means when Congressman John Lewis, a civil rights hero, came to our capital city and talked of standing up for what’s right and ending all forms of discrimination. As elected officials, we must all follow his brave example and do the right thing when it comes to ensuring civil rights.”

Under the bill, partners who have previously established a civil union may apply for a marriage license and would receive the license immediately, without the usual 72-hour waiting period between application for, and issuance of, the license. The usual fees for a marriage license would apply to same sex couples.

The bill includes a religious exemption stating that no member of the clergy of any religion authorized to solemnize marriage and no religious society, institution or organization in this state shall be required to solemnize any marriage in violation of the free exercise of religion guaranteed by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

It also includes another religious exemption stating that no religious society, institution or organization in this state serving a particular faith or denomination shall be compelled to provide space, services, advantages, goods or privileges related to the solemnization, celebration or promotion of marriage if such solemnization, celebration or promotion of marriage is in violation of the beliefs of such religious society, institution or organization.

Also, the bill states that no civil claim or cause of action against any religious society, institution or organization, or any employee thereof, shall arise out of any refusal to provide space, services, advantages, goods or privileges.


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