Civil rights delayed is civil rights denied

I still believe that civil-rights issues are not appropriate for the ballot. In moving my bill to grant same-sex couples the right to marry, I was steadfast on that point. I am reminded of James Madison’s warning: “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 society against the injustice of the other part.” Indeed, imagine if Southern voters in the 1960s were permitted to vote on whether lunch counters or schools should be desegregated.

Nonetheless, gays and lesbians today are at a crossroads. In light of Gov. Christie’s veto of my marriage-equality bill earlier this year, there are few options left for same-sex couples who are relegated to second-class citizenship by the state’s denial of their right to be married. These are the same gay and lesbian couples who are in long-standing relationships, who pay taxes in the state like everyone else, who raise families and call this state their home. And as long as marriage is a legal status recognized by the state, it should be granted on an equitable basis.

Yet while my marriage-equality bill won approval in the N.J. Senate by a vote of 24-16 and in the Assembly 42-33, we have to live with the governor’s veto unless advocates can muster a two-thirds majority to override. Three more affirmative votes are needed in the Senate and 12 votes are needed in the Assembly. The task is harder to achieve when one recognizes that out of the 66 affirmative votes in both houses on the issue, only two were cast by Republican members. It begs the question whether it is realistic to think there will be any additional cross-party votes in a gubernatorial election year. The secondary question, then is what’s next?

Advocates have been buoyed by the ballot victories for marriage equality in the states of Washington, Maine and Maryland. A ballot measure to deny same-sex couples such rights was defeated in Minnesota. Equally compelling has been President Obama’s “evolution” on the subject, the ending of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the likelihood that the so-called Defense of Marriage Act will soon be history. Additionally, on any college campus, straight and gay students equally believe that allowing same-sex marriage will have little effect on the institution of marriage.

Standing firm on the issue, however, Gov. Christie feels the issue is best left up to the voters. We should take the governor up on his challenge and place the question on the ballot in 2013: “Do you want to allow the state of New Jersey to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples?” In the alternative, we can wait for the next governor or a final resolution by the courts, both expected no time soon. By having a ballot measure in place, there would be a viable alternative in the event the legislature cannot muster the support to override Gov. Christie’s veto.