TRENTON, N.J. — The New Jersey Assembly on Thursday passed a bill legalizing same-sex marriages, setting the stage for an expected veto by Gov. Chris Christie.
The 42-33 vote sends the bill to Christie, who won't take immediate action. The Republican governor who opposes gay marriage had promised "very swift action" if the bill passed both houses of the Legislature, but the Assembly isn't required to send the bill to his desk until the close of business Friday. The Senate approved the bill Monday.
"Without question this is a historic day in the state of New Jersey," Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver said after the vote. She said she had never been more proud of the Democratic caucus for doing "what citizens sent us here to do: to deliberate, to use the legislative process to represent the interests of all New Jerseyans."
Steven Goldstein, chairman of the gay rights group Garden State Equality, echoed the speaker's sentiments.
"Today, the Legislature has brought us to the promised land," said Goldstein. "We know the governor won't let us enter, but we finally behold the view of our dreams and we will never turn back."
Christie and most state Republican lawmakers want gay marriage put to a popular vote. Democrats say gay marriage is a civil right protected by the Constitution and not subject to referendum.
Six states and Washington, D.C. recognize gay marriages. Washington State's new gay marriage law is scheduled to take effect in June.
However, 30 states have adopted constitutional amendments aimed at preventing gay marriage, most by defining marriage as a union between man and woman.
The affirmative vote in the Assembly after more than two hours of debate ended weeks of speculation over whether Democrats who control the chamber would muster the 41 votes needed for the measure to pass. Four of the Assembly's 47 Democrats voted no, and a fifth was out of town and didn't vote. No Republicans voted in favor of the bill.
The Senate passed the bill 24-16. In that chamber, two Republicans voted for the bill and two Democrats voted against it in what was otherwise a party-line vote.
The bill would need several Republican votes in each house to override the governor; Christie himself essentially guaranteed that that won't happen.
With that in mind, Democrats who identified same-sex marriage as their No. 1 priority for the two-year legislative session that began in January have adopted a longer view. They say there's no rush for an override vote, especially because the Legislature has been unsuccessful in every prior attempt to override Christie, most notably to reinstate a surcharge on millionaires.
Instead, they plan to bide their time in hopes that support for gay marriage – currently 52-42 percent in New Jersey, according to one recent voter poll – will continue to grow.
"We do have two years," said Reed Gusciora, a Trenton Democrat who sponsored the bill in the Assembly and one of two openly gay state lawmakers. "We changed a lot of views in the last couple of weeks. Give us two years and we're going to change a heck of a lot more."
Gusciora also expressed hope that the governor would reconsider.
"I hope at the end of the day the governor understands what it's like to grow up as a gay or lesbian in the state, and that there are challenges, there is discrimination and this will come a long way of helping right all the wrongs," he said.
In case same-sex couples can't win gay marriage through legislation, they have engaged in a parallel fight in the courts. Seven gay couples and several of their children have sued, claiming that the state's civil union law doesn't work as intended.
Civil unions were designed to provide the benefits of marriage to gay couples without the title. They were adopted after the Supreme Court instructed the Legislature to provide marriage equality to same-sex couples.
The state's own review commission has since found problems with the law, however, and many same-sex couples have backed that up with testimony before the Legislature.
Gay rights advocates say civil unions have not provided true equality. They complain that they set up a separate and inherently unequal classification for gays – something social conservatives dispute.
Assemblyman Jay Weber, a conservative Republican, said the state's civil union law satisfies a Supreme Court order to grant gay couples the benefits and protections associated with marriage. He said he opposes altering the traditional definition of marriage.
A gay marriage bill was defeated in the Senate two years ago, just before Gov. Jon Corzine, a Democrat who supported the measure, left office. Advocates' hopes dimmed with the arrival of Christie, a Republican who spoke against gay marriage when asked about it during his campaign.
This time around, advocates have presented gay marriage as a civil rights issue. The bill includes an exemption for religious leaders, institutions and facilities, meaning no one would be required to perform, host or lease space for a gay marriage.
Republican Sen. Kip Bateman of Somerset has taken a different approach. He recently drafted a resolution asking voters to approve gay marriage at the ballot. The resolution must be approved by the Legislature to be placed on the ballot in November, which Senate President Steve Sweeney has already said he won't allow.