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Assembly Grants Historic Final Legislative Approval on Marriage Equality in New Jersey

Civil Rights Bill Sponsored by Oliver, Gusciora, Wagner, Jasey, McKeon, Vainieri Huttle, O’Donnell, Wisniewski & Eustace Would Bring Equal Treatment to All Couples

The General Assembly on Thursday granted historic final legislative approval to democratic legislation to create true marriage equality and protect the civil rights of same-sex couples and their families who have suffered at the hands of a “separate but equal” system.

The bill (A-1) – titled the Marriage Equality and Religious Exemption Act – was approved by a vote of 42-33. The measure passed the Senate on Monday by a vote of 24-16 and now heads to the Governor’s desk.

The legislation would eliminate the civil unions that have been in place since 2007, but have failed to provide equal treatment to New Jersey’s same-sex couples, and instead define marriage as the legally recognized union of two consenting people in a committed relationship.

The bill is sponsored by Assembly Democratic lawmakers Reed Gusciora, Speaker Sheila Oliver, Connie Wagner, Mila Jasey, John McKeon, Valerie Vainieri Huttle, Jason O’Donnell, Deputy Speaker John Wisniewski and Timothy Eustace.

The legislation also expressly stipulates that no clergy of any religion authorized to solemnize marriage, nor any religious society, institution or organization in the state, would be required to conduct any marriage in violation of their free exercise of religion.

“The ‘freedom to marry’ belongs to all Americans regardless of race, creed or sexual orientation,” said Gusciora (D-Mercer/Hunterdon). “In a society based on the notion of separation of church and state, it simply goes against our constitution to deny rights to one group because of another group’s religious beliefs. This is the Stonewall of our time, meant to correct the last vestiges of discrimination in our state. For same-sex New Jersey couples and their children, this law will transform their lives.”

“The existing civil union law sends the same message to the public that we heard from Jim Crow segregation laws – that same-sex couples and their families are not equal to married couples in the eyes of the law,” said Oliver (D-Essex/Passaic). “This legislation would provide everyone in this state – everyone – with the same respect and protections under the law. It eliminates the second-class citizenship status that same-sex couples presently face while protecting freedom of religion. These principles are part of the bedrock of our constitution and should not be dismissed summarily.”

The sponsors noted that with Washington State enacting marriage equality on Monday, seven states and the District of Columbia now allow same-sex couples to marry.

“Denying rights and benefits to committed same-sex couples that are statutorily given to their heterosexual counterparts violates the equal protection guarantee of our state constitution,” said Wagner (D-Bergen). “Yet, through testimony and overwhelming evidence, the New Jersey Civil Union Review Commission found that numerous employers in New Jersey have denied equal benefits to civil union partners because of the deprivation of marriage equality, and that numerous hospitals in New Jersey have denied visitation and medical decision rights to civil union partners because of the deprivation of marriage equality. This is wrong.”

“Giving same-sex couples the same choice other couples currently enjoy is a civil rights issue, whether the governor likes it or not,” said Jasey (D-Essex/Morris). “All couples should have the peace of mind that if ever faced with a tragedy, they would not be turned away at a hospital or denied medical decision rights because their governor didn’t think they were worthy of being married.”

“There is no denying that marriage equality is a civil rights issue,” said McKeon (D-Essex/Morris). “To allow heterosexual couples to marry and enjoy the legal benefits, privileges and rights that come with marriage, but deny the same opportunity and rights to same-sex couples simply because of their sexual orientation is cruel and unjust. This inequity must be amended now. Gov. Christie, do what’s right and sign this bill.”

“If we have learned anything from our past, it’s that government-sanctioned discrimination will inevitably become a shameful chapter in our history,” said Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen). “With countless couples still being subjected to discrimination, civil unions have proven to be a failed experiment in New Jersey. We were elected to represent everyone in this state, not just certain constituents. It’s time we right this course and provide true equality for all of our citizens.”

“We cannot single out a group of people and deem them undeserving of the same legal and economic protections others enjoy,” said Wisniewski (D-Middlesex). “We were reminded Monday of what true courage means when Congressman John Lewis, a civil rights hero, came to our capital city and talked of standing up for what’s right and ending all forms of discrimination. As elected officials, we must all follow his brave example and do the right thing when it comes to ensuring civil rights.”

“It’s unfortunate that under the current civil union system, same sex couples are forced to have to explain and justify their relationships each and every day, and more unfortunate when it’s during a time of duress,” said Eustace (D-Bergen). “My partner and I have been together over three decades and have raised two sons. By every traditional definition we are a family, except when it comes to our recognition under state law. I hope the state will put an end to this discrimination once and for all and make New Jersey a true leader in equality,”

The bill 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 guaranteed by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

It also includes another religious exemption stating that no religious society, institution or organization in this state serving a particular faith or denomination shall 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.

Also, the bill states that no civil claim or cause of action against any religious society, institution or organization, or any employee thereof, shall arise out of any refusal to provide space, services, advantages, goods or privileges.

Under the bill, partners who have previously established a civil union may apply for a marriage license and would receive the license immediately, without the usual 72-hour waiting period between application for, and issuance of, the license. The usual fees for a marriage license would apply to same sex couples.

The bill would take effect on the 60th day following enactment.