The New Jersey Senate Judiciary Committee handed proponents of marriage equality an important first-round victory last night, Dec. 7, approving a bill that could make New Jersey the sixth state to allow same-sex marriage.
The panel's 7 to 6 approval came shortly after 10 p.m., following more than seven hours of emotional, and at times highly personal, testimony and discussion.
The committee hearing room, packed with gay marriage backers, erupted in cheers and applause with the vote tally. Afterwards, Steven Goldstein, executive director of Garden State Equality, spoke to a euphoric gathering.
Garden State Equality Executive Director Steve Goldstein
(Photo by Chuck Colbert/Keen News Service)
''The marriage equality movement in America starts again right here,'' he said. The crowd shouted back, ''Right here.''
The legislation now heads to the full Senate for a showdown vote on Thursday, December 11, and one that is also expected to be very close.
Judiciary committee chair Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen), who voted against the measure, said, ''There is no doubt about it, if [the bill] does come off the Senate floor, it will have a lot of momentum.'' But he told reporters, ''As of this point, I don't believe the votes have been secured to get it off the floor. I am quite sure they do not have the votes at this time.''
Garden State Equality, the state's leading gay civil rights organization, fielded an impressive show of force all day throughout the statehouse and committee hearings. Altogether, about 1,300 marriage equality backers crowded into the Capitol, many wearing dark blue marriage equality T-shirts, marked with the tag line ''Equality, the American dream.'' Beforehand, gay marriage proponents met at a nearby hotel to map out the day's activities. En masse, they trekked a short distance to the Statehouse, banners in hand and voices singing.
Estimates of gay marriage opponents numbered at several hundred.
Testimony during the committee hearing covered a full range of concerns including differences of opinions over how the bill might affect religious liberty, legal and civil rights issues, and access to medical health insurance and hospital visitation.
Marriage equality proponents pointed to the black civil rights movement, comparing marriage equality to that struggle in the 1960s and suggesting that equal rights for the LGBT community is the civil rights struggle for this generation.
''Like race, our sexuality isn't a preference," said veteran civil rights leader Julian Bond, chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and former Georgia state Senator. "It's immutable, unchangeable and the Constitution protects us all from discrimination,'' said Bond, who traveled from Washington, D.C.
Hospital visitation and medical health insurance, gay marriage backers said, were not adequately covered and provided for under New Jersey's current civil unions law.
''When I arrived at the hospital to see my partner, I told the nurse I was a civil union partner,'' Paul Beckwith of Plainfield explained to committee members. ''The nurse said, 'You cannot see him – civil union business partners are not next of kin.'
''When I got sick a year later, a different hospital told my partner he couldn't see me. Two hospitals, two places where the civil union law failed. It's supposed to work like marriage, but that doesn't happen in the real world.''
For his part, a spokesperson for the Catholic Church acknowledged that the civil unions law might not be working. Pat Branigan of the New Jersey Catholic Conference said the state should enforce the civil union provisions, enacted in 2006, and investigate whether any ''allegations'' of discrimination against gay couples are true or not.
"The state of New Jersey should educate the public and should enforce state laws that provide protection for same sex" couples, he said.
A spokesperson for the New Jersey State Bar Association called civil unions a "second-class legal status" for gay couples.
Nevertheless, for gay marriage opponents an overarching concern was fear over religious liberty protections for individuals and faith denominations opposed to licensing same-sex marriages on what they see as moral and scriptural grounds.
A large part of the testimony indeed focused on opposing religious perspectives——differences of opinion between Orthodox Jews and Roman Catholics who squaring off against people of faith who are liberal to progressive.
Josh Pruzanzsky, executive director of the Agudath of Israel of New Jersey, said same-sex marriage "would endanger religious freedom, inhibit free speech, and undermine the preferred status of marriage.''
''It would convey a social message,'' he said, ''that is deeply offensive to many residents of the state of New Jersey and lead to further erosion in the traditional conception of family."
But the bill's lead sponsor, state Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), a reform Jew, told a panel of three rabbis who testified that lawmakers should not base their votes on sacred texts, including the Torah.
"We are a country governed by laws that ensure equality and fairness for every individual," she said.
Dozens of clergy from both sides of the debate testified. The pro-marriage equality clergy included the Episcopal bishops of Newark and New Jersey, as well as ministers and pastors from mainline Protestant denominations, and Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis.
Progressive clergy members said their religious liberty and free-exercise First Amendment rights are already compromised because the state does not permit the solemnizing same-sex marriages already sanctioned by their religious beliefs.
''Keep the state out of my sanctuary,'' said several clergy members who testified.
To address religious concerns, the bill, called the ''Freedom of Religion and Equality in Civil Marriage Act,'' was amended to extend protections for religious liberties beyond clergy to include groups affiliated with faith traditions or denominations, which do not recognize or permit same-sex marriage.
Proposed by state Senator Bill Barroni (R-Mercer) the new language reads, ''No religious society, institution, or organization shall be compelled to provide spade, services, advantages, good or privileges related to solemnization, celebration, or promotion of marriages is such solemnization, celebration, or promotion of marriage is in violation of the beliefs or such religious society, institution, or organization.''
The bill also goes further than many religious exemptions, prohibiting lawsuits against any religious organization or employee for refusing ''to provide space, services, advantages, goods, or privileges'' in connection with same-sex marriages.
Garden State Equality executive director Goldstein said, his organization is ''fine'' with the new amendment and its language protecting religious liberty.
© 2009 Keen News Service