TRENTON, N.J. — A bill allowing same-sex “marriage” in New Jersey is a “top priority” for New Jersey Senate President Stephen Sweeney and his fellow Democrats in both the Senate and Assembly.

Gov. Chris Christie has promised to veto any same-sex “marriage” bill. The bill is unlikely to gain enough votes to override that veto, but the fight is sure to be intense.

New Jersey has allowed same-sex civil unions, with all the benefits of marriage, since 2006 and domestic partnerships since 2003.

Sweeney, a Catholic living in the Diocese of Camden, abstained from a similar vote in 2010. His lack of support was considered a key element in that bill’s defeat. In the intervening time, Sweeney radically changed his position on the issue.

“I made a bonehead decision,” he told The Philadelphia Inquirer. “I did the wrong thing.”

One week prior to introducing the new bill, Sweeney announced that he was considering a run for U.S. Senate in 2014.

After New York State passed a same-sex “marriage” bill last June, other states seem to be trying to hop on the bandwagon in 2012. In Washington State, Democratic Gov. Christine Gregoire is pushing for a same-sex “marriage” bill. And, in Colorado, a bill would create legal partnerships for both same-sex and opposite-sex couples.

The head of Colorado’s Catholic Conference, Jennifer Kraska, warned, “In every state where legislators or lawmakers have pushed civil unions, there has been a push for the recognition of same-sex ‘marriage.’”

That certainly seems to be the case in New Jersey. The new bill in the Garden State bears the symbolic number S1/A1, for “Senate No. 1” and “Assembly No. 1,” indicating that same-sex “marriage” is the first order of business for the returning legislature of the economically beleaguered state. Sponsored by Sen. Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen; Raymond Lesniak, D-Union; and Sweeney, D-Cumberland, Gloucester and Salem, the Senate and Assembly bills, if passed, will enact the “Marriage Equality and Religious Exemption Act”,  erasing civil unions and replacing them with same-sex “marriage.”

Civil Unions in N.J.

The fight over same-sex “marriage” in New Jersey began with the unanimous New Jersey Supreme Court decision in Lewis v. Harris (2006), which ruled that existing New Jersey domestic-partnerships laws were unconstitutional and failed to provide equal protection to same-sex couples. The court was split, however, on the remedy. Four justices ruled that the state legislature must either amend current marriage laws or permit civil unions, while the remaining three justices argued that the only solution was extending full marriage rights to same-sex couples.

The Legislature responded by passing the Civil Union Act, which went into effect in February 2007. This law was explicitly designed to amend “the current marriage statute to include same-sex couples … by providing same-sex couples with the same rights and benefits as heterosexual couples who choose to marry.” It included a detailed enumeration of the rights of couples in civil unions, which are identical to the rights of people in marriages.

The bill also modified the language of numerous other bills to read “marriages or civil unions,” thus extending the rights of marriage to anyone in a civil union.

Part of the relevant statute specifies that “civil-union couples shall have all of the same benefits, protections and responsibilities under law, whether they derive from statute, administrative or court rule, public policy, common law or any other source of civil law, as are granted to spouses in a marriage.” This extends to “laws relating to insurance, health and pension benefits.”

The law also mandated the formation of the Civil Union Review Commission to study its effects. This commission was comprised of people from the administration of Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine and people appointed by the governor. A key element in the renewed push for same-sex “marriage” in New Jersey is the commission’s 2008 report, “The Legal, Medical, Economic, and Social Consequences of New Jersey’s Civil Union Law.”

The report claims that the “separate categorization established by the Civil Union Act invites and encourages unequal treatment of same-sex couples and their children. In a number of cases, the negative effect of the Civil Union Act on the physical and mental health of same-sex couples and their children is striking, largely because a number of employers and hospitals do not recognize the rights and benefits of marriage for civil-union couples.”

The law was in effect for a year at the time of these findings.

The report focuses on the claim that “marriage” is universally understood, but the rights of those in “civil unions” need to be explained to others. To highlight the gravity of the situation, the report leads with an anecdote about a woman who had to explain what a civil union was to an emergency room doctor before she was able to speak to him about her partner.

Advocates also focus on employers who are slow or reluctant to extend benefits to partners of people in civil unions. The civil-union law does, in fact, account for this.

One example cited in the report was UPS, which refused benefits to a same-sex partner a few months after the law was passed. When its responsibility under the new law was explained to them by the governor’s office, UPS complied within a week. Even Seton Hall University and other Catholic institutions in New Jersey extend benefits to the civil-union partners of same-sex employees in non-ministerial positions in order to comply with the law.

“The report was an embarrassment,” said Patrick Brannigan, executive director of the New Jersey Catholic Conference, which speaks on behalf of New Jersey’s seven bishops. “If that was a high-school term paper, the student would have failed. It was all based in anecdotes. The claim that a same-sex couple cannot participate in medical decision-making is false.”

Indeed, The Physician Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment (POLST) Act, which Christie signed into law in December, guarantees all adults the right to specify their wishes in the event they lose the ability to express themselves. This includes designating any decision-maker of their choosing. Furthermore, the Catholic bishops of New Jersey issued their “Advanced Directives for Health Care” in 2002, allowing any patient to designate anyone as a health-care decision-maker, including same-sex partners.

Round 3

After the submission of the commission’s report in 2008, Gov. Corzine pressed for a new same-sex “marriage” bill. He wanted to approve it before the end of his term, since incoming Gov. Christie promised to veto any such law. This new law was approved by the Senate Judicial Committee on a 7-6 vote. On Jan. 7, 2010, it went down to defeat on a vote of 20-14.

With the political landscape slightly altered through departures and defections, such as that of Sweeney and Republican Jennifer Beck, the law now stands a greater chance of passing, albeit without a veto-proof majority.

The current bill states that “it is the intent of the legislature in enacting this bill to end the pernicious practice of discrimination in civil marriage in New Jersey.” It seeks to accomplish this by abolishing civil unions and replacing them with gender-neutral “marriages,” thus allowing people of the same gender to “marry.”

“The government can give same-sex couples all the benefits of marriage,” observes Patrick Brannigan, “but they can’t redefine marriage. It is not ‘unjust discrimination’ to treat different things differently. Same-sex unions are not, in fact, the same thing as the union of one man and one woman in marriage. One type of union may ever generate children; the other may never; one type of union respects and expresses the inherent complementarity of man and woman; the other does not. Therefore, treating one type of union as ‘marriage’ and the other not is not only permitted, but required. Indeed, it is treating this differentiation as bigotry that constitutes an injustice.”

Anticipating some of the objections from religious institutions, the legislature intends to “leave decisions about religious marriage to religions.” Towards that end, it includes a religious exemption stating that “no member of the clergy of any religion authorized to solemnize marriage and no religious society, institution or organization in this state shall be required to solemnize any marriage in violation of the free exercise of religion.”

Nor will any “religious society, institution or organization in this state serving a particular faith or denomination … be compelled to provide space, services, advantages, goods or privileges related to the solemnization, celebration or promotion of marriage if such solemnization, celebration or promotion of marriage is in violation of the beliefs of such religious society, institution or organization.”

The bishops of New Jersey outlined their opposition to same-sex “marriage” during the first battle, in “The Call to Marriage Is Woven Deeply Into the Human Spirit.” At that time, Archbishop John Myers of Newark, and Bishops Joseph Galante of Camden, Paul Bootkoski of Metuchen, Arthur Serratelli of Patterson, John Smith of Trenton (subsequently succeeded by Bishop David O’Connell) and William Skurla (then head of the Byzantine Catholic Eparchy of Passaic in New Jersey and just appointed metropolitan archbishop of Pittsburgh of the Byzantines) wrote, “The debate about same-sex ‘marriage’ is not about benefits and rights. The Civil Union Act settled that issue once and for all.

“In New Jersey, same-sex couples have every benefit and right without exception that the state of New Jersey grants to heterosexual married couples. The same-sex ‘marriage’ initiative is an attempt to change the historic structure of marriage as a union only of a man and a woman. This initiative ignores human nature because throughout all of human history marriage has required the complementarity of man and woman. Same-sex civil unions may represent a new and a different type of institution, one in which government grants to same-sex couples benefits and protections, but same-sex unions are not marriage.”

Supporters of same-sex “marriage” in New Jersey are characterizing their opponents as bigots and framing the fight as one for civil rights. In an editorial for The Times of Trenton, Assemblyman Reed Gusciora, D-Trenton, the first openly homosexual member of the New Jersey Legislature, attributed opposition to the bill to either “religious dogma or blind prejudice.”

In announcing his new priority for passing a same-sex “marriage” law, Sen. Sweeney remarked that Gov. Christie is “a decent person, and I think we can work on educating him.”

The Church does not view same-sex “marriage” as a civil right. “A strong desire does not make a civil right,” said Brannigan on behalf of the bishops. “Every man and every woman has a right to enter into marriage, but marriage as an institution can only be between a man and a woman. Governments do not have the power to define marriage otherwise, because it is a permanent human institution that does not owe its existence to governments.”

Steve Goldstein of Garden State Equality, the group leading the fight to overturn civil-union laws, declined a request for an interview, saying, “I decline to answer your questions because they’re being asked with your clear point of view, as an advocate with a position rather than as a neutral journalist.”

For his part, Christie is refusing to be drawn into the debate any further, saying, “When forced to make a decision, if forced to make a decision on it, I’ll make a decision.”

Register correspondent Thomas L. McDonald writes from Medford, New Jersey.