Notable Milestones on the Road to Gay Marriage Equality in New Jersey
The Centuries-long path to marriage equality in New Jersey was long and winding. With the US Congress poised to legalize gay marriage, let’s reflect on some milestones from the past 20 years (or so) as the battle for equal marriage in New Jersey reached its crescendo.
2004 Domestic Partnerships
New Jersey was among the first states in the nation to adopts domestic partner legislation, a small step that, in retrospect, was also a giant leap forward. Jim McGreevey, who later came out as gay, was NJ Governor at the time.
“Domestic Partnership was an incremental step, an acknowledgement of the legitimacy of LGBTQ relationships,” Mr. McGreevey told InsiderNJ. “The credit belongs to (the late) Jamie Fox, who cajoled and coached legislators to produce majorities in both houses. If not a significant constitutional victory, Domestic Partnership was a significant moral and psychological win for the period.”
2006-2007 Civil Unions
In 2006 after hearing the Lewis v Harris case, the NJ Supreme Court could’ve legalized gay marriage outright. Instead the court ordered the legislature to either amend NJ’s marriage laws (to include gays) or to create civil union statutes instead. The legislature went with civil unions and for nearly a decade, gay couples in NJ had an inferior, separate and unequal, version of marriage.
Then-Governor Jon Corzine signed civil union legislation in December 2006 and by February 2007, gay couples were registering their civil unions around the state, hard-hard albeit incomplete victory in the larger battle for equal marriage.
Personal memory: Even though it was only a half-measure, achieving civil unions was a thrilling milestone. It was a heady time for gay activism and it felt meaningful to be to be part of the battle. My blog mates at BlueJersey raised money and produced a series of ads, spoofing the Apple TV ads of the time, highlighting how civil unions fell short of full marrraige equality. I’m surprised and delighted how well they hold up 16 years later.
2009-2010 Lame Duck Senate Vote
After the South Jersey Democratic machine lined up the votes to oust longtime Senate President Richard Codey in 2009, Codey called a marriage equality vote in the NJ Senate. If Codey’s attempt to legalize gay marriage also highlighted that many of the same senators who dethroned him were barriers to gay marriage, it might have just been a coincidence. Or maybe not.
Ultimately, the lame duck marriage equality Hail Mary went down by a vote of 14-20. Bill Baroni, who’s gay, was the only GOP senator to vote yes that day.
“Those votes in favor of equal marriage were some of the most important votes for me personally, and for our state,” Mr. Baroni told InsiderNJ. “While we did not succeed at first, New Jersey sent a message — to other states, to the Supreme Court, and most importantly, LGBTQ+ people that we were committed to true equality and we would get there and we did. What started on those cold nights in December and January can look like ancient history. But for those of us who were there, who felt the pressure against us, the sadness of that initial defeat, and now the joy of seeing our friends and loved ones get married — there’s one more feeling we can have.“
Personal memory: I was on the Senate floor for this vote and as the final tally appeared on the the overhead roster, I was struck by the number of abstentions, especially from South Jersey including (my own) Senator Jim Beach and Steven Sweeney, who’d take Codey’s place as Senate President. Garden State Equality immediately turned it’s ire on Senator Beach and Senator John Girgenti (D-Hawthorne) and there was a certain abandon with which we toiled to make them radioactive. We were, as I recall, thirsty for revenge against the Democrats we felt betrayed by. Jeff Gardner, a former GSE board member, immediately made a play for Senator Girgenti’s municipal chairmanship. When he won in an unset, Girgenti was suddenly vulnerable in the subsequent redistricting battle where Senator Girgenti’s hometown of Hawthorne was grafted onto another district ostensibly ending his career.
2012 Senate Vote
A lot changed since the last senate vote back in 2010, namely a new anti-gay governor (Christie) and a new Senate President in Steve Sweeney who later called his abstention on marriage equality one of the biggest mistakes of his career.
Despite the promise of a Chris Christie veto, the February 13, 2012 vote for marriage equality found the NJ Senate Chamber crackling with excitement and nervous tension. The vote passed by 24-14 with GOP Senators Dianne Allen and Jennifer Beck joining most of the democratic caucus to pass the bill. On February 16, the General Assembly passed a similar 42-33 and the very next day Governor Christie vetoed the bill. None of Chris Christie’s vetos, including this one, were ultimately overridden by the legislature.
Personal memory: Senator Jim Beach worked hard to make amends to the LGBTQ community for his previous abstention. On the day of the vote, he invited me down onto the Senate floor to press the “Yes” button to mark his vote. It was kind and unexpected gesture that chokes me up all these years later. I wore a sweater vest for the occasion, a sartorial homage to Jon Corzine, the (then) very recently departed NJ Governor and quite possibly the first governor in American history to make marriage equality part of his re-election platform.
2013 United State v. Windsor
Argued on March 27, 2013 and decided the following June 26, United States v. Windsor was the landmark US Supreme Court case that set the table for gay marriage equality in places like New Jersey where it still wasn’t legal. Windsor, named for Edith Windsor who was forced to pay federal inheritance tax on her late wife’s estate, also unlocked previously denied federal benefits to gay married couples.
2013 Wedding Bells
Then-Governor Christie’s various attempts to delay marriage equality were repeatedly and resoundingly rebuffed in court and on October 21, 2013, gay couples throughout New Jersey began exchanging wedding vows. The first gay couple to say “I do” is believed to be Marsha Shapiro and Louise Walpin.
“We fought hard for marriage equality in New Jersey, along with so many others,” the iconic duo told InsiderNJ. “In January 2010 the bill didn’t even get out of the Senate; two years later it passed both legislative branches only to be vetoed by Governor Christie. Finally the battle was won in the courts. What an exhilarating moment! We were honored to be the first same-sex couple in New Jersey to legally wed at 12:00:01 AM on 10/21/2013 at the home of Senator Raymond and (the late) Salena Lesniak. At last, we had the dignity, respect, rights and responsibilities that straight couples enjoyed. We broke the glass, a tradition of Judaism, to mark the end of discrimination against same-gendered couples for all generations to follow. It is thrilling and humbling to have played even a small part in moving the arc of the moral universe towards justice.”
Personal memory: Garden State Equality dispatched me to Lambertville to chronicle the vows of then-councilwoman Beth Asario and Joanne Schailey. I got choked up (again) watching the video we mashed up for posterity.
An entire decade of gays getting married and the sky not falling.
2021-2022 NJ Legalized Gay Marriage
Wait didn’t we already do that? Actually no. Some states followed the lead of Massachusetts and legalized gay marriage legislatively. For states like Iowa, the path to equality weight through the courts. Meanwhile, states like Maine and Maryland let voters do the work and legalized equal marriage via referendum.
There was no gay marriage referendum and NJ never got gay marriage legislation over the line. Marriage equality in New Jersey is the result of a series of US Supreme Court rulings (Windsor, Obergafell) which brought marriage to the parts of America that hadn’t yet legalized it.
With the High Court’s recent lurch rightward, NJ Governor Murphy and legislative leaders were eager to finally codify marriage equality into state law during the 2021-22 “lame duck” session. Last December, the Senate passed the bill by a 35-4 vote margin. The Assembly followed suit with a lopsided 53-10 vote for equality.
Governor Murphy signed the bill into law in January of 2022.
2022 Dobbs Decision
This past June, when the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade to ban abortion in half of America, LGBTQ advocates braced for what might be next on the chopping block. After all during the Dobbs decision overturning Roe, Justice Clarence Thomas telegraphed that gay marriage might be next.
“Justice Clarence Thomas’s written decision suggests that the decisions which established the right to contraception, privacy in the bedroom, and marriage for same-sex couples should be revisited and overturned,” Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ) told LGBTQ Nation at the time.
2022 Congress legalizes Gay Marriage
In July, the US House of Representatives passed marriage equality legislation by an uncommonly bipartisan vote of 267 to 157. On a day when 47 republicans joined the entire democratic caucus to pass the bill, the NJ delegation voted 11-1 in favor. Donald Norcross’ floor speech about his grandson’s birth after one of his two moms beat cancer left the House rapt. It might have been the stemwinder of the day.
Also notable, after multiple NO votes as a state lawmaker, MAGA Republican Jeff Van Drew voted to pass the bill.
Last month the US Senate advanced their own versus of the bill with both NJ Senators Cory Booker and Bob Menendez voting YES=. Because the Senate version included so-called religious protections to induce one-the-fence-Senators, the House will vote again to get the modified version of the bill to President Joe Biden’s desk.
Recently-retired New Jersey senator Loretta Weinberg might be the most influential straight ally in New Jersey political history. And she knows a little thing or two about playing the long game.
“I was so proud to be a participant in each of these eras,” Senator Weinberg told InsiderNJ “(The battle for marriage equality) was probably my the most exciting, frustrating, interesting, and happy endeavors in my public life. I am pleased to still be on this earth to see these rights finally enshrined into federal law!”
So are we Aunt Loretta!
Jay Lassiter led the fight to legalize weed and gay marriage in NJ. He and his partner of 19 years are (still) living in sin in Cherry Hill, NJ
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Five Supreme Court Justices are followed, over the inspired word of God.
Well done. An inspiring history of many steps to social change.
Kudos, Jay Lassiter, for a great column.
Kudos, also, for your tireless, remarkable work on behalf of marriage equality. Bless you!
Regarding living in sin with your partner, I would change that to something more appropriate.
This 91 year old Senior Plus, Plus does not care who you are or are not living with. To me it is more important that you are a fine human being………….
AND THAT YOU DEFINITELY ARE!!!!!
Thank you ma’am