Gay Marriage Debate Stirs Passions in New Jersey

Veteran Trenton lawmakers say they've never seen anything like it. Thousands of people, supporters and opponents of gay marriage, attended a public hearing and vote last night before the Senate Judiciary Committee. The debate lasted well into the night, before the 13 members of the panel voted, 7-6, to send the bill on to the full New Jersey State Senate for a vote. Gay rights supporters outnumbered opponents, but the passion was equal on both sides.

Michael Donnelly spoke for many critics when he demanded lawmakers leave the definition of marriage up to voters in the form of a ballot referendum. "In this constitution it says that government of the state is inherent not in the senate, not in the assembly, or in the governor. It is inherent in the people. The citizens of New Jersey want to vote," Donnelly says.

Another opponent of same-sex marriage, John Demarco, broke some of the tension in the packed chamber with his attempt to use a hardware analogy to make his point. "These things together, with a bolt and a nut can hold together something strong, like a family of parents. A married couple holds together something strong here, and you can't get that same function by having two nuts or two bolts, alright? And that's what I want to come over here with. Marriage is an institution that predates written religion, or written laws," Demarco says.

Dozens of witnesses and legal experts cited examples of how the state's current civil union law -- passed in 2006 -- fails to protect same-sex couples from discrimination by employers, hospitals, and the legal system. And the senate panel heard several anecdotes from gay families with children.

Karen Nicholson McFadden was one of the plaintiffs in a pivotal legal case in which New Jersey's highest court ruled same-sex couples were entitled to all of the same protections and privileges granted heterosexual married couples. But, she says, her children still know their family is not treated equally. "They come home with lessons from school about civil rights--Martin Luther King and what he did to help lead the civil rights movement--and they say to us 'But mom, I don't get it, we are being taught separate but equal was wrong but isn't that what New Jersey is doing to our family, separating us out, calling us something different?'" McFadden says.

McFadden's son, fifth-grader Kasey, told the senators that the phrase "civil unions" didn't go over so well among his peers. "It is unfair for our family, mainly my sister and I, at school, at soccer, at swim team, whatever, kids they find out we have two moms and they ask questions like, 'How are they legally your parents -- they're not married and we try to explain what civil union is, they look at us like we are from Mars,'" Kasey says.

On Thursday, the full state senate takes up the controversial measure. Marriage equality activists have a tight time frame in which to get the law passed; they have until next month when Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine leaves office. His successor, Republican Chris Christie, has vowed to veto any bill allowing for gay marriage.