New Jersey legislators approved a bill legalizing same-sex marriage, but Gov. Chris Christie's promise to veto the measure sets the stage for a battle that should cement his role as a powerhouse in the Republican Party, even if voters support the right of gays to wed in a ballot measure.
The vote in the Democratic-controlled Assembly on Thursday in favor of the Marriage Equality and Religious Exemption Act was 42 to 33 after nearly three hours of debate as speakers on both sides insisted they were acting on behalf of the majority of New Jersey voters.
Republican Nancy Munoz, like other opponents, said she was voting no because most of her constituents opposed the bill. She said voters should decide the issue in a referendum, which Christie also supports. "I trust the people of New Jersey, and I say they should be allowed to voice their opinion," she said as opponents of the bill, dressed uniformly in bright red, erupted in applause.
Cleopatra Tucker, a Democrat, said she also was voting on behalf of her constituents by supporting the bill. "This bill today is not a religious issue. It's a civil rights issue," Tucker said, after acknowledging she had "struggled" with her decision because of her Christian background.
As lawmakers argued inside, scores of people gathered in a chilly drizzle outside to protest for each side. A rabbi carried a sign that accused legislators who backed the act of "promoting sodomy … spreading sin, diseases and a higher suicide rate," while speakers blared prayers read aloud in English, Spanish, Hebrew and other languages.
Nearby, representatives of Garden State Equality, a gay advocacy group, passed out doughnuts as their leader, Steven Goldstein, lobbied for the bill until the last possible minute. "This is not just politics. This is our lives," he said. "This bill raises the hopes and the dreams of hundreds of thousands of people."
Although passage in the Assembly, where Democrats hold 47 of the 80 seats, had seemed likely, both sides acknowledged that Christie's promised veto and a possible November referendum meant the battle for same-sex marriage is far from over.
"The battle continues," said Len Deo, president of the New Jersey Family Policy Council, which opposed the bill. Deo, who watched the vote from the sometimes raucous visitors gallery overlooking the Assembly floor, was satisfied that the number of yes votes showed the inability of proponents to rally all the Democrats to their side.
"From our perspective, it's a good thing," he said of the final count.
New Jersey is the latest state to become embroiled in an issue that has led to political and legal dramas even in liberal-leaning states such as California, where former Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger twice vetoed legislation that would have legalized same-sex marriage. Last week, a federal appeals court threw out the results of Proposition 8, which voters passed in 2008 to define marriage as a union of a man and a woman, opening the door to another round in the state's roller-coaster-like fight.
A gay marriage bill in Maryland advanced to the House of Delegates floor Tuesday, with a vote expected Friday. Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley supports the law, but it is unclear whether it will get the 71 votes it needs to pass.
Washington became the seventh state to recognize same-sex marriage when the governor signed a bill into law Monday, but conservatives said they would collect signatures to put a referendum on the ballot to overturn it.
Political observers noted that Christie, who has endorsed Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, has little to lose by vetoing the bill, despite a recent poll showing most New Jersey voters support same-sex marriage.
"Those who are in favor of it are unlikely to be Christie voters anyway, so by vetoing it he really doesn't lose many votes he would have otherwise," said Rutgers University political science professor David Redlawsk.
If voters approve same-sex marriage in a referendum, Christie can still claim to have stood firm against the measure, thereby maintaining his credibility with conservative Republicans and putting himself in good stead for reelection in 2013 and for 2016, when he has been mentioned as a possible presidential contender, Redlawsk said.
"He's establishing his Republican bona fides," said Kenneth Sherrill of New York's Hunter College, who said Christie was "strong enough and tough enough" to withstand any criticism he might face for blocking the legislation. "I don't think he's going to get a primary challenge as governor as a result of this."
Even if Christie has his eye on the presidency someday, Sherrill said, for now he probably is looking toward the next presidential race and the Republicans' — and Romney's — fates as he pushes back against the issue. "Christie may be interested in being vice president; he may just be loyal to Romney," Sherrill said.
Christie has cited his Christian beliefs, not political interests, for opposing same-sex marriage and for letting voters decide on it, and he promised "very swift action" to veto the bill.
That leaves advocates of the bill less than two years to muster the votes needed to override his veto, and Goldstein said that was the next goal. "It's one step at a time," he said.
Ian Duncan in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.