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Gay-marriage approval by voters in Washington, Maryland and Maine last month led Democratic New Jersey Assemblyman Reed Gusciora to plot a new strategy around the veto power of Republican Governor Chris Christie.
Gusciora, sponsor of a bill allowing same-sex nuptials that passed the legislature this year and was rejected by Christie, introduced a bill on Dec. 13 to put such rights on the ballot. He found himself minus support from Garden State Equality, a gay-advocacy group that earlier this year called him a “pioneer” with “tenacity that’s truly inspirational.”
“A majority does not vote on the rights of a minority,” said Steven Goldstein, 50, founder and chairman of the Montclair-based organization, which has 124,850 members and has been lobbying for equal rights since 2004.
The rift between Goldstein and Gusciora, one of two openly gay lawmakers, mirrors national splintering, as some activists question the no-ballot stance endorsed by the Washington-based Human Rights Campaign and New York-based Freedom to Marry, the biggest financial backers of gay-marriage measures.
“It’s like saying, ’I refuse to get married unless I can do it in a Vera Wang wedding dress,’” said Jay Lassiter, 40, a gay Democratic political consultant from Cherry Hill, New Jersey. “If you really want it, you’ll get married in a burlap bag. Hanging on to yesterday’s consensus is retrograde.”
November marked the first time that same-sex unions have been endorsed at the ballot box in the U.S. The votes in Maryland, Maine and Washington put an end to more than a decade of defeat for advocates of gay marriage, which had been rejected by voters in every state where it appeared.
Massachusetts in 2004 became the first state to allow same- sex weddings as a result of a ruling by its highest court. It has since been legalized in Iowa, New York, Connecticut, New Hampshire and Vermont, and the District of Columbia, because of court rulings or decisions by elected officials.
Next year, the U.S. Supreme Court will take up the issue for the first time as it weighs appeals on a California ballot measure banning the practice and a federal law defining marriage as solely an opposite-sex union.
FreedomOhio, a Columbus-based volunteer group, is petitioning for a ballot question to overturn a 2004 constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman, another example of a split from the national advocates.
“Without question we waited in Ohio for someone to do something about marriage equality,” said FreedomOhio co-founder Ian James, 46, a Democratic political consultant. “When that wasn’t happening we decided it was time to take matters into our own hands.”
Freedom to Marry has been trying to persuade FreedomOhio to wait until it’s more sure of victory. Ballot measures should be a “last resort,” said Evan Wolfson, president of the national gay-rights group.
FreedomOhio’s decision to go it alone signals a “potential for breakdown” nationally, said Brian Brown, president of the Washington-based National Organization for Marriage, which lobbies state governments to limit marriage to heterosexuals.
His group was among those that raised $11 million, he said, for the ballot fight in three states plus Minnesota, whose voters defeated a a heterosexuals-only amendment.
Gay-advocacy groups raised $34 million, according to Michael Cole-Schwartz, a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign. Still, that group, Freedom to Marry and Garden State Equality consider ballot measures “offensive to the rights of minorities and hold unspeakable potential for divisiveness,” according to a joint statement they released Dec. 12.
Gusciora, 52, from Trenton, New Jersey’s capital, sponsored a same-sex marriage measure that passed the Democratic- controlled legislature in February. Christie vetoed the bill, saying he believes that marriage should be between a man and a woman, and that the issue should be decided by voters.
Democratic leaders in the state rejected the option of a referendum on gay marriage, saying civil-rights matters shouldn’t be left to popular opinion.
“It’s become civil rights delayed is civil rights denied,” Gusciora said. “It’s not right to rule out what has been a successful path in other states.”
Senate President Steve Sweeney, the state’s highest-ranking Democratic lawmaker, says Gusciora’s bill will go nowhere. He said he expects the legislature will override Christie’s veto by January 2014, the end of the session.
The gay-marriage bill passed 24-16 in the Senate and 42-33 in the Assembly. An override would require 27 votes in the Senate, where Democrats rule 24-16, and 54 in the Assembly, where they dominate 48-32.
The override votes will be “hard to muster” in the lower house, says Assemblyman Tim Eustace, a Democrat who lives with his gay partner in Maywood. He said he was “very fearful” about putting a civil-rights decision in the hands of voters, though he called Gusciora’s proposal “absolutely right” because of the momentum of support in other states.
“Everyone is trying to reach the same goals,” said Eustace, 55. “It’s the perfect environment to place the referendum on the ballot.”
Goldstein said that based on e-mails and phone calls to his organization, Gusciora’s approach is favored “by about 10 to 20 percent, tops” among the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
He said he fears that a public question in 2013, when Christie is running for a second term and all legislative seats are open, would draw millions of dollars from out-of-state Republicans who disagree with same-sex marriage.
“Opponents of marriage equality probably pray every day that there is a referendum on marriage equality, not only because they believe we could lose, but because they rightfully believe it would bring their conservative base to the polls and imperil Democratic legislators,” Goldstein said.
Jon Holden Galluccio, who met Michael Galluccio in 1982 and legally married him in California in 2008, now lives in North Haledon, New Jersey, with two of their three children. Until recently, he was a vice chairman of Garden State Equality. He declined to say why he had resigned.
Like Gusciora and Eustace, Jon Galluccio said he’s no longer insisting that only lawmakers or the courts have the authority to weigh in.
“I would not want to see a referendum,” Galluccio, 49, said by phone Dec. 18. “But it would be naïve of us to throw everything off the table.”
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