Gay marriage supporters may still target Christie's 2012 veto

The Record
Gabriela Cristina Celeiro, left, and Elizabeth C. Salerno enter Newark City Hall Sunday night in anticipation of getting married.
Gabriela Cristina Celeiro, left, and Elizabeth C. Salerno enter Newark City Hall Sunday night in anticipation of getting married.

Photos: NJ Same-sex couples marry at midnight

Related: Gay couples celebrate first marriages in New Jersey

Riding a wave of euphoria that swept much of the state, Christian Reinhardt and Marijan Por exchanged vows in their hometown of Ridgewood on Monday evening, joining dozens of other gay couples who rushed to the altar as Governor Christie abandoned his court battle to delay same-sex marriages in New Jersey.

Gays and lesbians who exchanged vows on Monday — some starting at 12:01 a.m., the minute such unions became legal — did so against a political backdrop that included a debate among supporters about whether the Legislature should override Christie’s veto of a same-sex marriage bill and questions about what the withdrawal of the legal challenge would mean for Christie if he was preparing for a presidential run.

The reaction to the news from the left and the right was as swift as it was predictable. Christie’s decision delighted gay-rights advocates and Democrats, while Republicans accused the GOP governor of giving in to the sort of “judicial activism” he has publicly condemned.

Related: Photos: NJ Same-sex couples marry at midnight

But all of that chatter seemed distant on Monday to Reinhardt and Por and others like them as New Jersey became the 14th state to allow same-sex couples to wed.

Partners for 33 years, Reinhardt and Por said “I do” at the Unitarian Society of Ridgewood. They sealed their marriage with a kiss, causing so much excitement that their 8-year-old daughter, Zora, leapt into the air into a cloud of bubbles.

Reinhardt and Por, Slovenian immigrants who were previously married in Connecticut, spent much of Monday in a Hackensack courtroom petitioning a judge to waive the 72-hour waiting period that most couples must endure after obtaining a marriage license. Two hours after the judge granted the order, they donned pinstripe suits and their daughter put on her hot-pink dress. Even their dog, Tiare, was on hand for the big occasion.

“To do it on this day means more because we have waited too long for this day,” Reinhardt said.

Other North Jersey couples also managed to persuade judges to waive the waiting period so they could exchange vows on Monday. But some, a pair of high school sweethearts from Fair Lawn among them, were denied waivers because they could not produce proof of a domestic partnership, civil union or marriage in another state, or evidence of an emergency such as an imminent military deployment.

Christie, who is seeking a second term, has staunchly stood by his view of marriage as a 2,000-year-old institution between one man and one woman. Last year he vetoed a bill that would have legalized same-sex marriage in New Jersey, saying the matter should be put to voters in a public referendum. Christie stepped into the debate again last month by filing an appeal after a Superior Court judge ruled that New Jersey gay couples were being denied fair treatment under the law and would be allowed to marry starting Monday.

The state Supreme Court agreed to take up the case, but on Friday it unanimously denied the Christie administration’s attempt to block the weddings before the court had ruled on the overall issue.

Christie’s office released a statement Monday stressing that his position had not changed but that the Supreme Court’s decision last week “left no ambiguity about the unanimous court’s view on the ultimate decision in this matter.”

With a legal victory seemingly in hand, supporters of same-sex marriage say they are still considering whether to continue pushing legislators to override Christie’s February 2012 veto. They cite fears that Christie’s nominees for three Supreme Court vacancies — the first of whom was approved by the state Senate Judiciary Committee last week — could change the court’s makeup, opening up the possibility of revisiting the gay-marriage issue. Democrats argue that Christie is trying to shift the court’s balance too far in his party’s favor, breaking a long-standing tradition.

Brigid Harrison, a professor of political science and law at Montclair State University, said it would make sense to push for an override because of the Supreme Court vacancies. “In case Christie changes the composition of the court over the next four years, it’s good to have this on the books,” she said.

Christie’s opponent in the Nov. 5 gubernatorial election, Democratic state Sen. Barbara Buono, accused Christie on Monday of having “bigoted views,” and she praised the court ruling that led to his decision to withdraw his appeal.

“Despite Governor Christie’s efforts to block the rights of gays and lesbians at every turn, it took a determined effort by brave individuals and a unanimous decision by the New Jersey Supreme Court to force the governor to drop his appeal,” she said in a statement.

Garden State Equality, the state’s largest gay-rights group and the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit the governor was challenging, held a celebratory rally in Montclair on Monday afternoon, and officials said they would speak to legislative leaders about continuing the push to override Christie’s veto.

“Not only have we won the freedom to marry, they will never take it away from us,” Troy Stevenson, the group’s executive director, said.

But the National Organization for Marriage pledged to fight to protect what it called the traditional definition of marriage.

Brian Brown, the organization’s president, said he was “extremely disappointed” in Christie.

“His surrender on marriage effectively surrenders any chance he might have had to secure the GOP nomination for president” in 2016, Brown said in a statement.

Harrison said that, while Christie’s withdrawal could make a Republican presidential primary more challenging, it could show his party that he could win a general election.

“I think that it actually lends credence to his kind of national identity as being conciliatory, as being bipartisan, as being an electable Republican presidential candidate,” she said. “I think it’s very easy to stake out the staunchly ideological position and know that that will help you when it comes to primary politics. But the reality is we’ve had many presidential contenders do that, and then when it comes to the general election, they’re not electable by the much more moderate general-election constituency.”

Christie, who has not publicly talked about same-sex marriage since the Supreme Court’s decision last week, dodged reporters at a groundbreaking ceremony at Gloucester County College’s Deptford campus on Monday afternoon.

Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, was also at the event and called Christie’s decision to drop the appeal a pleasant surprise. “Really, it’s a day to celebrate,” Sweeney said.

He added he was unsure whether the effort to override Christie’s veto would still be necessary.

“We’ll figure out what’s next,” Sweeney said. “We haven’t made any final determination yet.”

New Jersey United for Marriage, a coalition promoting the veto override, organized same-sex weddings across the state on Monday. The group had been gaining support among lawmakers for an override vote after the Nov. 5 election but before the legislative session ends in January — the so-called “lame-duck” session in which legislators sometimes feel more at liberty to vote their conscience without the pressure of campaigning.

Stevenson of Garden State Equality, whose organization is a founding member of New Jersey United for Marriage, said the group is still considering its options.

“We’re talking with our lawyers and the Senate and Assembly leadership, and we should have news on that very soon,” he said.

Stevenson could not provide a specific number of same-sex couples who wed Monday but estimated it as in the dozens.

The Williams Institute at UCLA’s School of Law estimates that the governor’s withdrawal of the appeal will benefit nearly 17,000 same-sex couples and approximately 250,000 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered residents.

State Sen. Michael Doherty, R-Warren, one of the most conservative members of the Legislature, said Christie “acquiesced to the same judicial activism that he has long railed against.”

“His action will ensure that the people of New Jersey and its elected representatives in the Legislature will have no part in deciding this major, societal-changing issue,” Doherty said in a statement.

New Jersey voters, however, appear to be supporting gay marriage in greater numbers. A Rutgers-Eagleton poll released Monday indicated that 61 percent support same-sex marriage, 27 percent oppose it and 12 percent are undecided. The poll found for the first time that a plurality of Republicans support gay marriage.

“Beliefs about same-sex marriage have shifted rapidly,” said David Redlawsk, director of the poll. “Fully one-quarter of today’s supporters tell us they were previously opposed. Not long ago, a ruling like this would have created a significant backlash. Now most voters agree with it.”

Staff Writer Chris Harris contributed to this article.

What they said

“The governor must have looked in the faces of those couples last night, saw the love and commitment, and decided it’s hard to take that away from them.”

“As a member of the Legislature, I am disappointed that same-sex marriage is apparently now the law of New Jersey despite neither the enactment of legislation nor a vote of the people to amend our state constitution.”

“I am thrilled the court ended his ability to enforce his bigoted views that are contrary to the values of our state.”

“History is unfolding before our eyes. This is a cause for celebration.”

Governor Christie apparently knew he was fighting a losing battle in continuing to fight against marriage equality in the Garden State, and rather than engage in legal gymnastics, decided to plant himself on the right side of history.”

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