TRENTON While same-sex couples have been legally married in New Jersey since October, thanks to a Superior Court ruling, legislators are pushing a new bill that would guarantee that the right could not be reversed.
"Marriage equality is not the law of the land in New Jersey. Civil union is still the law," said State Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D., Union), who introduced the bill last week with Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D., Bergen).
On Monday, the Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to consider the proposed bill, which also clarifies some issues not addressed by the court.
A law, Lesniak said, "would give an extra level of protection," including against future courts with different views, as well as possible court challenges to the decision by Judge Mary C. Jacobson.
For example, part of Jacobson's decision found that couples in civil unions were denied federal benefits, so they should be allowed to marry.
"Those opposed to gay marriage would be in court the very next day if federal benefits are given to civil-union couples throughout the country," Lesniak said.
In addition to safeguarding the right to wed, cosponsor Weinberg said, the bill recognizes out-of-state same-sex marriages, eliminates the option of a civil union, and provides for transition from civil union to marriage.
Although the Judiciary Committee is taking up the bill, sponsors say they are still seeking support in both legislative houses.
Gov. Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak said that if the legislation passed, the governor would consider it as he would any other bill.
Christie conditionally vetoed another marriage-equality bill and sought to appeal Jacobson's decision to the state Supreme Court. The administration dropped its appeal after the high court refused to halt same-sex marriages pending the outcome of the appeal.
Christie has said same-sex marriage is an issue that should be left up to voters.
Hayley Gorenberg, Lambda Legal's deputy leader director and one of the attorneys who successfully brought the marriage-equality case, said that she appreciated the legislators' efforts but that the right to marry has already been won. She called the possibility of a court rollback "a creature of the imagination."
If anything, she said she saw possible harm in pursuing legislation. "Anything that opens the door to meddling with what we have secured raises cause for concern," she said.
Troy Stevenson, executive director of Garden State Equality, a party to the suit, said advocates and legislators were working together.
However, he expressed concern about a so-called religious exemption in the proposed law.
More limited than the original marriage-equality bill's religious exemption, the legislation would allow only religious groups that have event space solely for their members to turn away gay and lesbian couples who want to wed there. If they let people outside their church use the space, they would not be able to deny it to same-sex couples.
"I don't think our organization can get behind something that has a religious exception," Stevenson said.
Clergy whose faith tenets do not allow same-sex marriage would not be required to officiate at such weddings, a right arguably protected by the First Amendment already.
It remains to be seen how the Assembly will take to the idea of a marriage-equality law, given Jacobson's decision.
"New Jersey now has a very strong marriage-equality right that is quite possibly the nation's strongest," said Tom Hester, spokesman for the Assembly's Democratic majority. "The Assembly is, of course, willing to listen to all ideas, but considering the strength of the existing right, no action is currently scheduled."