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New Jersey to vote on marriage equality this week

(NEW JERSEY) Supporters of marriage equality are one step closer to another victory in the state of New Jersey. A bill titled, “Freedom of Religion and Equality in Civil Marriage Act” (S1967), was first introduced to the New Jersey State Senate in June of 2008. On December 7, 2009 the bill was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee by a vote of 7-6 and tomorrow, after weeks of deliberation, the full state Senate will consider its passage into law.

“Given the intensely personal nature of this issue, I think the people of this state deserve the right to a formal debate on the Senate floor. I’d like to commend both sides of this issue for their passionate advocacy thus far and the heartfelt testimony that we have heard,” said Senate President Richard J. Codey (D-Essex).

S1967 is sponsored and co-sponsored by seven senators, all Democrats, including Senator M. Teresa Ruiz, the first Latina to serve in the State Senate and Senator Sandra Cunningham, wife of the late Glenn D. Cunningham, the first black Mayor of Jersey City. For many of the bill sponsors the issue is a civil rights issue, but like in much of the country, marriage equality is an issue that divides the community.

Among those opposing the bill is Regina Griggs, director of Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays and Gays (PFOX). Griggs has stated the bill redefines marriage as genderless without the consent of New Jersey voters and ignites hatred against the New Jersey ex-gay community.

In response to a statement issued by Julian Bond, chair of the NAACP, in which he claimed it is unconstitutional to deny homosexuals marriage because ‘like our race, sexuality isn't a preference. It's immutable and unchangeable,’ Griggs stated that, “…many African-Americans have come out of homosexuality, proving sexual orientation can change, but skin color does not."

Speaking to the Judiciary Committee in December, Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), the “proud” initial sponsor of S1967 said, “…the evidence is clear: civil unions have not worked. Same-sex couples are facing patterns of discrimination.

“I know this is not an easy vote to cast. But when we placed our names on the ballot, we asked for this responsibility. And we do not have the right, nor the luxury, to deny people their civil rights because it is hard, or uncomfortable, or to do otherwise.”

Sen. Raymond J. Lesniak (D-Union), S1967’s second sponsor, also addressed the Judiciary Committee in December and said, “It is not often we have an opportunity to change society and how we treat each other as human beings. It occurs a few times in our lifetimes, if it occurs at all. We have that opportunity today. We can change fear to love, hate to compassion, cruelty to kindness.

“Those who oppose gay marriage are not unloving, hateful or cruel. But our law, which does not allow for gay marriage, provides a safe haven for those who are. Legalizing gay marriage will take away that safe haven and make us a more compassionate, understanding and loving society.”

Whether or not Weinberg’s and Lesniak’s words will be echoed by the State Senate on Thursday is an outcome that will be monitored closely by both supporters of S1967 and those who oppose it.

If S1967 passes in its current form, it will protect all religious institutions and organizations from any civil claim or action against them, should they choose to not participate, perform or celebrate a marriage entered into by two individuals of the same sex.