Republican Gov. Chris Christie vowed Tuesday to veto a gay marriage bill under consideration in the Legislature, upending Democrats' plans to revive a measure that failed two years ago and attempting to force lawmakers to put the issue on the ballot instead.
Recent polls show a majority of New Jerseyans support the right of same-sex couples to wed, while voters in 31 states have adopted constitutional amendments defining marriage as a union between one man and one woman.
Democrats who control the Legislature say the issue is one of civil rights; like a woman's right to vote or anti-discrimination measures, it doesn't belong on the ballot. With Christie seeking a referendum and Democratic leaders resisting, a protracted political standoff is likely.
Similar legislation failed in the Senate in 2010. Six states and Washington, D.C. permit gay marriages.
"Whether or not to redefine hundreds of years of societal and religious traditions should not be decided by 121 people in the Statehouse," Christie said. "Let the people of New Jersey decide what is right for the state."
Christie had said as recently as Monday he would consider the issue if the bill gained momentum in the Legislature, but then made his first explicit promise to veto the bill after a town hall event Tuesday in Bridgewater. The Senate Judiciary Committee, which was holding a hearing on the bill the same day, forwarded the measure to the full Senate hours later, on an 8-4 party-line vote.
"We are going to send this to the governor's desk somehow," said Senate Democratic leader Loretta Weinberg of Teaneck. "That I guarantee you."
With Christie's position now clear _ he staked out similar ground while campaigning for office in 2009 _ Republican lawmakers are expected to line up behind the governor regardless of how they feel personally about gay marriage. Democrats do not have veto-proof majorities in either house, dimming prospects for an override even if they get the bill through; not all Democrats support it.
Senate President Stephen Sweeney, a Democrat who is sponsoring the bill, said some Republicans support it.
"The governor should allow them to vote their conscience. His announcement today was to try to put a damper on what we're trying to do. It's not happening. We're not backing down. We're not giving up."
Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver agreed, saying lawmakers would not shy away from the issue because it is difficult. The Assembly could begin considering the measure as early as next week.
Sweeney, who didn't always support gay marriage, abstained from voting on the measure the last time around, but later called his inaction the biggest mistake of his political career.
"For those who haven't made their minds up, or are leaning toward voting no, I urge you to take another look," Sweeney testified at the hearing. "How would you feel if your government told you you couldn't marry the person you love because of who you chose to love?"
Some of Tuesday's testimony was from same-sex couples who said the state's civil union law _ which conveys the benefits of marriage without the title _ doesn't work as intended.
John Grant and Daniel Weiss, an Asbury Park couple who are in a civil union, attended the session to support the legislation.
When Grant was in a life-threatening automobile accident and rushed to a New York hospital in 2010 _ before that state legalized gay marriage _ Weiss said he couldn't authorize badly needed surgery or even go through his partner's wallet to find his health insurance card. He said their civil union was essentially worthless; Grant's neurosurgeon even asked, "What is a civil union?"
Also Tuesday, 127 professors from 48 law schools around the country signed a letter saying New Jersey's civil union law cannot be fixed.
The professors, including former New Jersey Public Advocate Ron Chen, said the law granting gay couples the benefits of marriage without the title will never be equal to the right to marry.
The letter was sent to Christie, a Catholic, and the Legislature.
The legislation contains a religious opt-out clause, meaning no church clergy would be required to perform gay marriages; places of worship would not have to allow same-sex weddings at their facilities.
Nonetheless, several cited their religious beliefs as the reason to vote down the proposal.
"A vote for gay marriage is a vote against God," said Pat Necerato, a Millstone resident who operates an online ministry, though he is not ordained.
Sen. Joseph Kyrillos, a Monmouth County Republican who is seeking the GOP nomination for U.S. Senate, said flaws in the civil union law should be addressed. For example, he encouraged the Health Department to investigate claims that civil unions are being ignored when one partner is hospitalized.
Dissatisfied with the civil union law enacted five years ago, New Jersey's gay rights organization, Garden State Equality, and same-sex couples have sued to force the state to allow gay couples to marry. The lawsuit is pending and is likely to be decided by the state Supreme Court.
Christie on Monday nominated an openly gay black man to the court. During the news conference that followed, he said he would look at the gay marriage bill if it gained traction, though he said he was not inclined to change his opposition.
Henry reported from Bridgewater.