N.J. governor vetoes gay marriage bill as vowed

By By John Reitmeyer and Juliet Fletcher,The Record (Hackensack, N.J.) (MCT)

TRENTON, N.J. – About 24 hours after New Jersey lawmakers sent a same-sex marriage bill to his desk, Gov. Chris Christie sent it back with his promised veto.

The governor’s rejection now gives sponsors of the bill and supporters of marriage equality in New Jersey nearly two years to rally enough support in the Assembly and Senate to override Christie.

That effort had already begun before Christie’s action, which came in the form of a conditional veto announced Friday afternoon.

Christie wants the issue to go before voters in the fall in the form of a statewide ballot question because it would require an amendment of the state constitution. His conditional veto calls for the creation of an ombudsman _ a sort of overseer _ to ensure that the rights provided through civil unions, the only option currently available to gay couples, are enforced.

“Today, I am adhering to what I’ve said since this bill was first introduced _ an issue of this magnitude and importance, which requires a constitutional amendment, should be left to the people of New Jersey to decide,” Christie said.

“I continue to encourage the Legislature to trust the people of New Jersey and seek their input by allowing our citizens to vote on a question that represents a profoundly significant societal change,” he said.

“The ombudsman will be charged with increasing awareness of the law regarding civil unions, will provide a clear point of contact for those who have questions or concerns and will be required to report any evidence of the law being violated. In this way, we can ensure equal treatment under the law,” he said.

Christie received the bill, passed Thursday by the Assembly, just after 11 a.m. Friday. He announced his conditional veto just after 5 p.m.

“This is a categorical disappointment, both the governor’s quick veto and his dismissive attitude this week about the importance of this bill,” said Assemblywoman Connie Wagner, D-Paramus.

“Perhaps if he had taken a circumspect moment to think about how this measure would profoundly affect the lives of so many in our state, he might have acted differently,” said Wagner, one of the bill’s sponsors.

The New Jersey Family Policy Council has echoed the governor’s call for a ballot question.

“This is a cultural issue; the Legislature has no right to redefine marriage for the whole of New Jersey,” Len Deo, the organization’s president and founder, said earlier this week in anticipation of the veto. “You cannot redefine that which you did not create. Let the people have a say in this all-important question.”

On Thursday, the Assembly voted 42-33 in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage after nearly two hours of debate. In the Senate, the same measure passed by a 24-16 margin, two years after a similar mustered only 14 votes.

Democrats, who hold an advantage over Republicans in both houses, provided the majority of the votes in favor of the bill this week. All 42 votes in the Assembly came from Democrats, and 22 of the 24 in the Senate.

To override Christie, a Republican, the bill sponsors will need to secure 54 votes in the Assembly and 27 in the Senate. But marriage equality supporters will be in no rush to challenge the governor.

They have nearly two years to attempt an override and can do so at any time before the current session of the Legislature expires in January 2014.

New Jersey’s same-sex marriage fight is being watched closely across the country as many states confront the issue; the latest to legalize it was Washington on Monday. Neighboring New York legalized marriage equality in 2011.

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In New Jersey, the issue is also tied up in the courts. The New Jersey Supreme Court will likely hear a case on marriage rights sometime this year; the court set the stage for this week’s historic votes when it ruled in 2006 that same-sex couples should be given the same rights as married couples, but left it to the Legislature to decide how to accomplish that task, resulting in a civil union law that went into effect in early 2007.

Though Christie called this week’s legislative effort “just theater” earlier in the week and claimed lawmakers wouldn’t be able to muster an override of his veto, marriage equality supporters said the votes signify “legislative intent” that would be an important factor for Supreme Court justices considering the issue.

But the activists and supporters said they will continue to pressure holdouts to change their votes in favor of the bill.

“For us, this is not about politics. This is about our fundamental American right to conduct our lives with a full life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Equality,” said Steven Goldstein of Teaneck, chairman of Garden State Equality.

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“We will work for an override confident in the knowledge we are doing the right thing and hopeful in the belief that legislators who voted no will experience a change of conscience and vote to override the governor,” said Sen. Loretta Weinberg, D-Teaneck.

“He can delay marriage equality in New Jersey, but he can’t stop it,” said Weinberg, one of the bill’s primary sponsors.

Four Democrats voted against the legislation in the Assembly and one did not attend the voting session. Three Republicans were also absent from the Assembly on Monday and are at the top of the list of targeted lawmakers.

In the Senate, where two Republicans voted in favor of the bill, two Democrats were among those voting against.

If supporters picked up the two Democrats, they would only need to convince one more Republican _ assuming the other two remain consistent and vote to override their sitting governor.