A much-anticipated vote on gay marriage in New Jersey has been put off indefinitely amid rising speculation that it would have gone down to defeat on Thursday.
The Marriage Equality Act was hastily pulled from the Senate vote schedule at the request of its sponsors, Sens. Ray Lesniak and
Loretta Weinberg. Late Wednesday, Senate President Richard Codey, who controls the Senate agenda, agreed.
Proponents of the legislation, which would make New Jersey one of a handful of states to allow same-sex couples to marry, said
they want the bill to receive parallel consideration in the Assembly, and give lawmakers more time to consider an amendment
strengthening the religious exemption.
"They indicated they wanted more time to study the bill,'' said Steven Goldstein, chairman of the gay rights group Garden State
Equality. "It's fine with us.''
He said the amendment clarifies that religious organizations would not have to perform same-sex weddings or allow them performed on their property, a sticking point for some.
But, late Wednesday, a handful of senators acknowledged that the bill lacked the 21 votes it needs to pass the Senate.
Proponents feel a sense of urgency to get the bill through the Legislature while there is still a governor in office who would sign it. Gov. Jon Corzine, who leaves office Jan. 19, strongly supports the bill and would sign it. His successor, Republican Gov.-elect Chris Christie, has said he would veto it.
Until now, the Assembly had been waiting for the Senate to act.
The tactical shift occurred after the bill squeaked through the Senate Judiciary Committee by a 7-6 vote on Monday. Its chair and
vice chair, both Democrats, voted against it, underscoring the bill's uncertain fate in the Senate.
The bill also would face an uphill climb in the Assembly.
Assembly Speaker Joe Roberts has not said whether he would post it in the lower house before a Senate vote. However, Assemblywoman Linda Greenstein said Thursday she would schedule a hearing in the Judiciary Committee she chairs if Roberts asked her to do so.
Lesniak said he wanted more time for additional voices to be heard in the debate.
"We felt that the testimony was so powerful (in Judiciary) that moving it parallel in both houses would enhance the chances for it to pass,'' Lesniak said. Seven hours of testimony preceded Monday's vote.
Goldstein said there were more than 150 members of the public who signed up to speak on the bill at that committee hearing who
did not get to. Extra time could get them another chance, he said.
For weeks, legislative leaders said they would put the bill up for a vote only if it appeared likely to pass. In recent weeks, that strategy shifted even though passage was not assured.
Maggie Gallagher, president of the National Organization for Marriage, said the defeats could have gay rights groups rethinking
seeking marriage rights from lawmakers.
"I suspect that gay marriage advocates are going to refocus on the courts and/or refocus on benefits rather than marriage,'' if they don't win now in New Jersey, she said.
New Jersey now offers gay couples civil unions, which give the legal protections, but not the name, of marriage.