New Jersey legislature passes marriage equality law to protect LGBTQ couples

New Jersey State House in Trenton file photo 2019

Governor Murphy is expected to sign the bill into law

The New Jersey Assembly and Senate approved a new marriage equality law that will formally codify same-sex marriage into the state statutes. Governor Murphy has indicated he will sign it into law. Marriage equality in New Jersey is protected only by judicial order of the Sate and U.S. Supreme Courts. If the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Obergefell v. Hodges, or several other LGBTQ-related court cases, marriage for same-sex couples could be in jeopardy nationwide in many states including New Jersey.

The vote was overwhelmingly in favor. In the State Senate the vote was 35-4. The Assembly, meanwhile, saw 53 members vote in favor, 10 voted against, and four abstained. It should be noted that another 13 members did not vote. They had left for the night by the time the bill came to a vote at 11 p.m.

On the marriage bill several legislators were watched closely by local activists. New Jersey’s 24th District, Senator Oroho and Assemblyman Space voted no, while Assemblyman Wirths abstained. They are all from Sussex County. Senator Oroho is quoted as saying “I support traditional marriage… I understand (gay) people can have very loving relationships and whatnot. That’s not my issue.” Oroho then said that “a major societal change”—his characterization of allowing gay marriage—should be up to all voters, not elected officials. “If it goes on the ballot, and people voted differently (than me), then so be it.”

Claiming that equal marriage was not for the courts or elected officials to decide is messaging that many legislators have used for years. Former Assemblywoman Alison Littell McHose wrote an opinion piece about gay marriage back in 2009. In the op-ed she claimed that decisions made in the courts or statehouse about same-sex marriage were authoritarian, and undemocratic. While running for his second assembly term in 2015, Assemblyman Space stated in a debate that he had already signed on in support of legislation that would add language to the state Constitution defining marriage as between one man and one woman.

“Voting no, or abstaining on marriage equality in 2021 only shows that our officials do not respect the will of the people, and cannot accept the major societal change that love is love,“ said the Sussex County LGBTQ Dems in a statement after this weeks votes were cast.

State Senators Christopher Connors (R-Lacey), Michael Doherty (R-Oxford), Steven Oroho (R-Franklin), and Robert Singer (R-Lakewood) were the only no votes; Oroho had opposed the bill all along. He voted against the bill when it advanced from the Judiciary Committee last week.

“Basic equal rights should not be denied to any class of citizen, regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation,” said State Sen. Vin Gopal (D-Long Branch), one of the bill’s cosponsors.  “The law must protect all civil rights and continue to honor the union between two people who love each other. We need to make these rights more secure by writing them into law,” he concluded.

The bill attracted significant bipartisan support this time around. Bills in the Garden State back in 2009 during the Jon Corzine years failed to pass. In 2012 the bills passed but were never signed into law by then Gov. Chris Christie who welded veto power until the New Jersey Supreme court ruled in 2013’s Garden State Equality v. Dow that same-sex marriage would be legal statewide.

“In 2012, I was proud to be a prime sponsor of New Jersey’s Marriage Equality Act,” Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Englewood), a co-sponsor, said in a statement released the morning after the bill’s passage. “At the time, I received considerable backlash for my support of the LGBTQ community, as did many of my colleagues. I am proud to once again be leading the charge to ensure that the rights of the LGBTQ community are safeguarded.”

New Jersey established equal marriage rights through the 2013 state Superior Court ruling after Governor Chris Christie, a Republican, had previously vetoed the marriage equality bill that passed both houses. Afterward an effort to codify marriage equality was unsuccessful because of criticism over religious exemptions in the legislation. Then two years later, the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges extended marriage rights across the nation.

The new law includes gender-neutral language. It has updated the terms “brother or sister” to “siblings” and “daughter or son” to “child” in the statute that bars marriages and civil unions between close family members. 

“We have talked about this a few times in the past with our legislative allies,” Lauren Albrecht, who serves as Garden State Equality’s policy consultant when speaking with Gay City News in a phone interview. “We can never be sure about anything. When it comes to equal rights for our community, we can’t leave it up for chance,” she said.

“With a conservative-leaning Supreme Court, we cannot afford to sit by in hopes the Justices will leave Obergefell v. Hodges intact,” said Garden State Equality Executive Director Christian Fuscarino before the votes, referring to the 2015 ruling that legalized marriage equality at a national level. “Our Legislature must act now to preserve this sacred right.”

LGBTQ couples worry that without protections granted by a law, “the rights given… could change with a different court,” said former state Sen. Bill Baroni, who was the first person to vote “yes” to marriage equality in 2013. “I envy one of you because one of you could be the last person to vote ‘yes’ on marriage equality and put it in our law forever and say to the people of New Jersey, no matter who you love we value you, we honor you, you are equal,” Baroni said during Thursday’s committee meeting as a speaker. 

The law was sponsored by Senate President Steve Sweeney, Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg and Senator Vin Gopal. It brings state law in line with the 2013 State Supreme Court decision in Garden State Equality v. Dow as well as the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Obergefell et al. v. Hodges, which held that same-sex marriage is a fundamental right and that all states are required to allow same-sex couples to marry.

“Devoted same-sex couples all across New Jersey are raising families as contributing members of their communities,” said Senator Weinberg (D-Bergen). “We fought to correct the injustice that denied these rights for too many loving couples for far too long. We don’t want to see those rights lost to an arch-conservative agenda of recent Supreme Court appointees.”

“Basic equal rights should not be denied to any class of citizen, regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation,” said Senator Gopal (D-Monmouth).