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Top Stories This Week in the Chronicle.
November 3, 2006

Marriage or civil union?

Most New Jersey lawmakers prefer the latter

Trenton, N.J.--Though a bill will be introduced in the New Jersey legislature to allow same-sex marriages, lawmakers seem to be leaning toward civil unions similar to those in Vermont and Connecticut.

The state�s legislature will soon be deciding how to obey the New Jersey Supreme Court�s October 25 ruling that forbids the state from denying same-sex couples the state rights and benefits of marriage.

The court gave the legislature 180 days, until April 23, 2007, to comply.

The justices ruled unanimously that same-sex couples are entitled to the rights and benefits of marriage, but split 4-3 on the remedy. The court�s majority left it to the legislature to either change the marriage laws to include same-sex couples, or reserve marriage for opposite-sex couples and create another structure for gays and lesbians.

The ruling is similar to the 1999 one in Vermont that led to civil unions the next year. New Jersey already has a limited domestic partner law.

The decision has political ramifications as well, within the state and around the nation.

New Jersey governor Jon Corzine has said he prefers civil unions, but would not veto a marriage bill.

But full marriage seems unlikely. Only 7 or 8 of the legislature�s 40 senators and 80 assembly members have indicated support for it.

One early marriage supporter is Assembly member Reed Gusciora.

�I�m in favor of calling it what it is,� said the Trenton Democrat. �Civil unions are separate and unequal, and make same-sex couples second class citizens.�

Gusciora, the Assembly�s assistant majority leader, said it has not yet been decided who will sponsor the marriage bill or when it will be introduced, though it is likely to be before the end of the year.

He is known as someone who loves to take jabs at conservatives, and he is expected to fight hard for full marriage.

But the politics may not fall Gusciora�s way. All 120 legislative seats are up for re-election in 2007.

A legislative staffer speaking on background said there is a lot of support for civil unions, both in the legislature and among the public, but a lack of understanding of what marriage is.

�There�s not a high enough comfort level with [same-sex] marriage,� the staffer said, and there may not be enough time to raise it.

The legislature has other issues to tackle before the session ends, including a complete overhaul of how property taxes are collected, pension reform, and a state budget.

The soonest any bill can be introduced is November 9, when the legislative session resumes.

Bush hits marriage on campaign

The decision has become a campaign issue for Republicans hoping to keep control of the U.S. Senate.

President George W. Bush, campaigning for a congressional candidate in Indiana three days after the ruling said, �Just this week in New Jersey, another activist court issued a ruling that raises doubt about the institution of marriage. We believe that marriage is between a man and a woman and should be defended.�

Bush later used the line in campaign stops in both Georgia and Texas.

The statement, being echoed throughout the GOP, is designed to motivate conservative base voters threatening to stay home because of the Iraq war and sex scandals.

Ironically, the New Jersey court is also being criticized for not being �activist� enough. A truly activist court, the critics argue, would have created same-sex marriage instead of assigning a resolution to the legislature.

Any effect the GOP�s �marriage� strategy has may be amplified in the eight states with constitutional same-sex marriage bans on the ballot. Two of those states, Virginia and Tennesee, are �firewall� states, where the GOP must prevail in the Senate race in order to retain control of the Senate. The races in both states are close.

The New York Times scolded Bush in an editorial.

�Having apparently lost all hope that he can use terrorism to scare voters into electing Republicans this November, the president has now begun raising the threat of gay marriage,� the Times opined.

Michigan Republicans are also using the decision to try to scare voters into thinking that hospital supply magnate Jon Stryker, whose Coalition for Progress supports LGBT equal rights and candidates who do, is going to put a pro-gay marriage initiative on the ballot if he is not defeated.

What if lawmakers do nothing?

The most significant unanswered question around the ruling is what happens if the legislature takes no action by the April 23 deadline.

�Nobody knows. The court did not retain jurisdiction over it,� said gay New York University law professor Arthur Leonard.

Leonard said that most likely, the plaintiffs could petition the court again for a remedy.

The New Jersey court has some precedent for dealing with an unresponsive legislature. In the mid-1970s, the court threatened to close the state�s schools until the legislature came up with a constitutional school funding formula. But the problems dragged on, and as of May, 2006, the court�s order has not been fully implemented.

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