September 23, 2013 at 6:00 AM, updated September 23, 2013 at 7:47 AM
Advocates have been working to convince state lawmakers — including a number of Republicans — that they should cross Gov. Chris Christie and override his veto of a bill (S1) that would legalize same-sex marriage. The state currently allows civil unions, and Christie maintains same-sex marriage should be decided by a voter referendum.
The effort to override Christie is still an uphill battle: In the Assembly, advocates need 12 more lawmakers to vote for an override than those who voted for the original bill. Three more votes are needed in the Senate. And the clock is ticking, with the legislative session ending in January.
But with new pledges to vote for an override — and a lame-duck Legislative session approaching — there are signs the gap is shrinking.
State Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union), a supporter of same-sex marriage, says he has been given commitments for enough votes in the Senate, and lawmakers and advocates are still pressing to find them in the Assembly.
In the lower house, Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon (R-Monmouth) missed the vote on the bill last year. He has committed to voting for an override.
Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi (R-Bergen), also absent during the vote, said she would vote in favor of an override, indicating she had been swayed by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act.
The court’s ruling will be key in convincing others, said Jeff Cook-McCormac, the senior adviser to the American Unity Fund, which is focused on convincing GOP lawmakers across the country to support same-sex marriage.
"It’s giving them a reason to re-think it," Cook-McCormac said of the court decision.
At least two more Democrats have indicated a willingness to back an override.
Assemblywoman Gabriela Mosquera (D-Camden), who was not a legislator last year, will vote for an override, said Carol Murphy, her spokeswoman. And Assemblyman Wayne DeAngelo (D-Hamilton) said he may support an override but continues to listen to constituents.. He said the response has been evenly split.
SEEKING GOP SUPPORT
Advocates say they are hoping Assemblywoman Mary Pat Angelini (R-Ocean), who did not vote on the bill, will support an override. She did not return a call for comment.
Cook-McCormac said it is possible to convince more Republicans to support gay marriage because "the question is a little clearer than it was" last year.
"I think the first thing is recognizing that the circumstances have changed considerably in New Jersey," he said, adding that the Supreme Court’s decision makes it clear that civil unions do not provide equal benefits to marriage and polls show gay marriage is supported by most New Jerseyans. "By getting them directly in touch with their representatives we are letting legislators know where their constituents stand," he said.
Len Deo, president of the New Jersey Family Policy Council, said his group is part of a coalition — including the National Organization for Marriage and the New Jersey Catholic Conference — that is lobbying legislators to vote against the override attempt.
"We’re working right now. The marriage coalition has been gathering and talking about opposition work to keep marriage as the union of a man and a woman," said Deo.
"I don’t think it’s going to be an easy push for (gay marriage supporters), but it’s going to be a battle for both sides," he said.
Meanwhile, a state Superior Court judge heard arguments last month over a lawsuit by six couples and Garden State Equality alleging civil unions fail to provide benefits equal to those afforded by marriage. The judge may rule soon, but the case is likely to be appealed to the state Supreme Court.
Lesniak said the Supreme Court could act before the Legislature has a chance to vote on an override, but that will have no impact on the effort to sway lawmakers. "We’re not going to give up on any avenue to get marriage equality done as soon as possible," he said.
Star-Ledger staff writer Matt Friedman contributed to this report.