Trenton, on Monday, December 7, was a battleground as New Jersey LGBTI activists continued their decades long struggle for recognition of first class citizenship. The battlefield is Marriage Equality and sitting governor Jon Corzine has said he would sign the bill when it comes to his desk. The sand is running through the hourglass, however, as governor-elect Chris Christie has not only said he won't sign a Marriage Equality bill, he actively campaigned against the idea as part of his platform.
Activist organizations, including Gay Activist Alliance in Morris County (GAAMC) and Garden State Equality (GSE), have been actively engaged in the struggle for some time. GSE has spearheaded the most recent efforts, with phone campaigns and activist meetings that yielded well over a thousand people attending Monday's hearings in the NJ Senate Judiciary committee. The bill needed to pass this committee in order to head to NJ's upper house for the initial vote by the full body. Passing by a slim 7 to 6 margin, surprise support came from Republican Bill Baroni once he suggested strengthening the religious exemption, graciously accepted by Democrat Loretta Weinberg, who is a staunch marriage equality supporter. The religious exemption permits religious organizations to not perform ceremonies for same sex couples if it is against their beliefs.
Allen Neuner, one of the activists on site, states that Republican Kip Bateman seems to have voted against the bill out of his thought that NJ's severely flawed Civil Union bill of three years' standing may be repaired. Apparently Bateman was not swayed by the testimony of Republican Vermont Senator Diane Snelling, who said that despite her state having Civil Unions for a decade, no one could say they are equal to marriage.
Testimony from a major insurance company outlined how it defines "spouse" for legal purposes, making it clear that Civil Union are separate, but not equal. How legislators justify separate yet unequal treatment in the first part of the 21st century is not clear.
Republican Senator Gerald Cardinale was committed to the conservative talking points, including, "Doesn't this open the door to polygamy?" and "Would you be in favor of civil unions if all the loopholes were closed?" and asked only these questions of people who testified about matters such as the difficulty of getting coverage as a civil union couple for a dying, special-needs child whom they fostered, then adopted. Cardinale added insult to injury with a suggestion that an amendment be added that would force a referendum in 2011, saying that it was disrespectful to the voters and the incoming governor to rush this through in the lame-duck session, conveniently forgetting that this battle has been fought for nearly 20 years in NJ alone.
Supporters among the clergy, like Rev. Alison Miller, from Morristown's Unitarian Fellowship, testified that some of the most moving ceremonies she's performed are commitment ceremonies for lesbian and gay couples. Clearly some communities of faith will choose not to perform the ceremonies, but welcoming congregations like Rev. Miller's will continue to embrace the faithful from all walks of life.
Interested in helping? Show up in Trenton on Thursday, December 10 to add your voices and support. NJ friends could use your help, and you'll have plenty of markers to call in as New York and Pennsylvania fight for equality. Trenton is easily accessible from Manhattan via NJ Transit's Northeast Corridor line. Wear comfortable shoes and bring some cough drops-it will be a day you'll never forget!