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Inquirer Editorial: Legislators should decide gay marriage

Whether same-sex marriage should be legal in New Jersey ought to be decided by the Legislature, not in the court of public opinion.

Whether same-sex marriage should be legal in New Jersey ought to be decided by the Legislature, not in the court of public opinion.

Senate President Stephen Sweeney believes lawmakers, not voters, should decide one of the most divisive social issues of the day, and he is right. While some states have approved gay marriage in referendums, success cannot be guaranteed against a well-financed public relations campaign.

Imagine if the desegregation of schools had been left to be decided by voters in Southern states that at the time treated blacks like second-class citizens. New Jersey lawmakers should stop debating the process and have the courage to take a clear stand on same-sex marriage. "It is the job of elected officials to ensure that everyone is provided equal protection and equal rights under the law," Sweeney said. "We should not hide from that responsibility.

A bill recently introduced by Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D., Mercer) would put the issue on the ballot in November and let voters decide whether to amend the state constitution to give gays and lesbians the right to marry. Sen. Christopher "Kip" Bateman (R., Somerset) introduced similar legislation calling for a ballot question earlier this year.

Gusciora, the state's first openly gay lawmaker, hopes that New Jersey will follow voters in Maine, Maryland, and Massachusetts, which passed gay-marriage ballot questions last month.

Polls suggest that largely liberal New Jersey voters are ready to support gay marriage, but the matter would be far from a slam dunk if put to a public vote.

Gov. Christie also has called for a referendum, putting him at odds with Sweeney, a powerful Gloucester County Democrat who as Senate president decides which bills are put up for votes in that chamber.

Currently, nine states and the District of Columbia grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Nine others, including New Jersey, allow civil unions.

Americans' views, too, have slowly evolved about same-sex marriage. Even President Obama, once a staunch supporter of civil unions only, last May reversed his opposition to gay marriage, opening the door for others to follow his lead.

Sweeney's support for same-sex marriage legislation - albeit late in the debate - means a strong likelihood that the lawmakers would try to override a Christie veto of the measure.

The stakes are high for Sweeney, who was on the wrong side of this issue two years ago when he abstained from voting on a similar measure that ultimately failed. He has acknowledged his mistake, and must now work to get the bill passed.

New Jersey lawmakers tried to address the needs of gay couples when they passed the 2006 law legalizing civil unions, which was supposed to provide the same rights to gay couples as married heterosexual couples.

But studies showed the civil-union law to be woefully inadequate. It did not provide the intended benefits and legal protections of marriage. The New Jersey Civil Union Review Commission, which conducted three public hearings to find out how the more than 2,000 couples that had received civil-union licenses had fared, uncovered numerous shortcomings. Couples were often denied health and tax benefits, and they faced obstacles in medical and other situations where heterosexual husbands and wives typically could act in each other's interest, the commission found.

It is important that any same-sex-marriage law also protects the rights of religious institutions to decide, according to their tenets, who may be married within them. But that should not prevent same-sex couples from otherwise having their marriages recognized as legal.