TRENTON, N.J. — The ceremony was going to be at their home. Along with friends and family, Marty Finkle and Mike Plake were going to invite their state lawmakers who helped them win the right to be married
On Thursday, their wedding – never scheduled but certainly anticipated – was postponed indefinitely when the state Senate defeated a bill to legalize gay marriage by a 20-14 vote, a loss that has New Jersey gay rights advocates heading back to the state courts to try to win full marriage rights.
Instead of being on the verge of marriage, the South Orange couple, the first in New Jersey to be joined in a domestic partnership in 2004, find themselves in the same place they've been for the last three years of their 13-year relationship: holding some legal protections in New Jersey, but still feeling unequal with heterosexual married couples.
"It would certainly have felt like a huge groundbreak in our own personal lives if the vote had come the direction we were hoping," said Plake.
Finkle said that even though he was expecting a loss in the Senate, he found himself angry the day after it happened.
"I thought I'd be OK," he said. "You know what? I'm mad not because we failed, I'm mad because of how it failed. I thought it was going to be a squeaker."
The vote put to end any chance of a law anytime soon to allow gay marriage in New Jersey. Gov. Jon Corzine, a Democrat, championed the idea. But Chris Christie, a Republican who takes over the governorship Jan. 19, says he would veto such a bill.
After a stretch in which state legislatures emerged as key battlegrounds for the issue, the courts are now main venues on the horizon.
A federal trial scheduled to start next week in California will address the constitutionality of a ban on gay marriage there. There are also challenges in federal court in Massachusetts to the federal Defense of Marriage Act, a 1996 federal law that defines marriage as between a man and a woman.
Evan Wolfson, executive director of Freedom to Marry, a national gay rights group, says that the gay marriage push is a social justice issue that will continue to have setbacks as well as advances – and that advocates will push for change in statehouses as well as in courts.
Opponents, though, say the defeats of the gay marriage bill in New Jersey and of a similar bill in the New York state Senate last week have ended the inevitable sense that more states would embrace gay marriage.
"I think that the playing field has been fundamentally altered," said Brian Brown, executive director of the National Organization for Marriage.
Gay marriage is legal in five states: Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont.
New Jersey has civil unions, which give gay couples the legal benefits of marriage, but not the title. The gay rights group Garden State Equality says it intends to file a lawsuit on the issue, hoping to get the state's courts to legalize gay nuptials.
Gay men and lesbians say the word "marriage" matters to them, but that there are also practical concerns. Finkle said that when he was in the hospital after an accident, Plake was held up on his way to visit him because he had to explain that he was a partner. They believe if he could have said he was the injured man's husband, no delay would have occurred.
When civil unions were created, Beth Asaro and Joane Schailey were joined in one of the state's first, in a City Hall ceremony in Lambertville.
Bowing to the wishes of their daughter, then 7 and obsessed with princesses, their ceremony was in the style of a wedding. Their daughter was the flower girl as reporters from 13 media outlets witnessed it.
But Asaro, 50, said the girl, now 9, knows it wasn't technically a marriage and was stung by the Senate vote on Thursday.
"She says, we're just going to have to move to Massachusetts, even if it's just for the day" to get legally married, Asaro said. "Our answer back to her was, 'We're going to stay here and fight for it.'"