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New Jersey: The next battleground for gay marriage

State Sen. Barbara Buono speaks to advocates for gay marriage in New Jersey at a gathering outside the Statehouse Thursday. (AP photo/Mel Evans)

The Supreme Court's invalidation of a key part of the Defense of Marriage Act changed the political and legal landscape for gay marriage across the country. But nowhere will the effects of the ruling be seen more immediately than in New Jersey.

First, there are the politics. Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican who supports civil unions but opposes gay marriage, is up for reelection in a blue state this fall. Opponent Barbara Buono (D) is already trying to put some heat on him over DOMA. In a recent email blast, her gay daughter called Christie “a giant roadblock to New Jersey achieving equality for all." In the wake of the Supreme Court decision, Buono is pushing the legislature for a vote to override his veto of gay marriage legislation last fall.

Lawmakers who need [political] cover, they certainly have it now," she told the Post. "Those that need a way to rationalize their vote to override, they've got it."

But some gay marriage activists say they simply don't have the 15 votes in the legislature to overcome Christie's veto. State Senate President Stephen Sweeney says he is planning a vote but has not scheduled one.

"It's under discussion at this point," Buono said. "We want to make sure that we're successful."

That takes us to the legal fight. Lambda Legal will file a motion for summary judgment in a case before New Jersey Superior Court that argues the state's civil unions are not equal to marriage.

"Its the most likely and the quickest path to victory," Garden State Equality executive director Troy Stevenson said.

In 2006, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that under the state constitution, gay couples are entitled to the same rights as married couples.

"That's what makes us unique, and that's why New Jersey is the epicenter for the next big battle on marriage equality," said Udi Ofer, executive director of the New Jersey American Civil Liberties Union.

In response to the 2006 ruling, the legislature passed a bill establishing civil unions in the state. Since civil unions were adopted in the state, marriage advocates have argued that they are not equal to marriage. The DOMA ruling bolsters that claim. While couples in civil unions may get some federal benefits after the ruling -- it's a legal gray area -- they will not get the automatic benefits enjoyed by spouses in states where gay marriage is legal.

"If there was ever a question about whether civil unions are equivalent to marriage, that question was answered by the Supreme Court," said Sally Goldfarb, a Rutgers professor who specializes in family law. "Valid same-sex marriages are going to be automatically entitled to recognition by the federal government. Civil unions are not."

Oral arguments will be held on August 15.

There is a third way -- referendum. Christie has said that while he would veto another gay marriage bill, he would respect a referendum vote on the issue. Polling suggests that it would pass. Assemblyman Reed Gusciora, New Jersey's first openly gay state lawmaker, supports that option. But many legislators and activists are opposed, arguing that civil rights should not be up for a vote.

And of course there's a final path -- voting Christie out of office. But even if he's at odds with popular opinion on this issue, for Democrats, that hope remains a longshot.

Rachel Weiner covers local politics for The Washington Post.



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