Senate President Richard Codey said Tuesday the body would vote on the measure Thursday.
“Given the intensely personal nature of this issue, I think the people of this state deserve the right to a formal debate on the Senate floor,” Codey said.
With many legislators refusing to say where they stand, Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), a sponsor, said the vote forces them to “stand up and be counted on how they feel about equal rights.”
In a time when lawmakers are calling the issue a matter of conscience, activists have been pushing the idea that some religious leaders are accepting of same-sex marriage.
That argument was a main thrust of a rally outside the State House on Monday that attracted 150 people, a modest crowd for a State House rally.
“It’s not about religion,” said the Rev. Joseph Harmon, pastor of the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation in Jersey City. “People who won’t want to do it for religious reasons don’t have to.”
A group of some 150 clergy of various faiths sent lawmakers a letter Monday making a similar argument and asking them to support gay marriage.
Social conservatives, including the New Jersey Catholic Conference and a group of Orthodox Jewish rabbis from Lakewood who usually avoid statewide political issues, have led the opposition to the bill.
The rally was quiet, perhaps because the activists are aware that the chance for the law to pass is slipping away.
Last month, the legislation’s sponsors in the state Senate, sensing there wasn’t enough support from the upper-House colleagues to pass it, asked the Assembly to try to pass it first. Last week, Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts deferred back to the Senate.
Gov. Jon Corzine, a Democrat, has said he would sign a law to legalize gay marriage. But time is running out. He will be replaced on Jan. 19 by Gov.-elect Chris Christie, a Republican who says he’ll veto the bill.
Lawmakers could technically approve a law by noon Jan. 19 and see it signed. But given the Legislature’s schedule, it would probably have to happen by Jan. 11 if the bill is to be passed.
Most arguments from the pro-gay-marriage groups are trying to change the minds of a group of Democratic lawmakers who have opposed it.
On Monday, Assemblyman John McKeon, a Democrat from South Orange, called on colleagues in that category to support the bill. “Twenty years from now, we’ll all look back at this time and say, ‘What were they thinking?’” if the law isn’t adopted.
Steven Goldstein, chair of gay-rights advocacy group Garden State Equality, said he expected more than 1,000 supporters would rally Thursday at the State House for the vote.
Only five states — Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont — now recognize gay marriage.
New Jersey has a civil -unions law, which gives gay couples the benefits of marriage but not the title