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Gay marriage fight divides supporters

One way or another, New Jersey will be deciding on gay marriage over the next year.
File Photo: Assemblyman Reed Gusciora D-Trenton, speaks about the bill he sponsored legalizing same-sex marriages, at the State House in Trenton, N.J., Thursday, Feb. 16, 2012. The New Jersey Assembly has passed a bill legalizing same-sex marriages,...
File Photo: Assemblyman Reed Gusciora D-Trenton, speaks about the bill he sponsored legalizing same-sex marriages, at the State House in Trenton, N.J.,...

One way or another, New Jersey will be deciding on gay marriage over the next year. If one lawmaker succeeds, the issue of same-sex marriage in the state might even wind up on November's ballot during a governor race. But not all gay rights advocates agree with that approach.

Last February, Republican Gov. Chris Christie vetoed a bill passed by the state’s Democratic-controlled legislature that would have legalized same-sex marriage. Civil unions, but not marriage are currently legal in New Jersey for gay couples. Christie’s conditional veto provided the state's Senate and Assembly the chance to override it before the close of their two-year term, which ends January 14, 2014. To override Christie's veto they need a two-thirds majority in the legislature. Three more senators and a dozen Assembly members would need to change their minds from last year and throw their support behind the measure.

Democratic Assemblyman Reed Gusciora does not believe the support for an override is there.

“I know some stakeholders feel we should be concentrating on a veto override, but I just think it’s really long odds,” Rep. Gusciora told msnbc.

Instead, he is optimistic about the chances at the ballot box after historic wins for gay marriage in other states last November: Maine, Washington, and Maryland. A recent Rutgers-Eagleton poll also showed that a majority of New Jersey residents support same-sex marriage and 53% believe the issue should be put up to a vote.

While the issue could get on the ballot through a citizen signature drive, Gusciora would aim to do so by winning a 60% super-majority vote in favor of putting the question to the voters.

But others within New Jersey's gay rights movement say putting their rights to a vote, shouldn't be an option. Nor do they have confidence about their chances at the ballot box, which until November, consistently sunk previous gay marriage initiatives.

“We’ve got a chance at override," said Troy Stevenson, head of civil rights group Garden State Equality. "This is about people’s fundamental right to marry the people they love. Yes, I’m the first to admit this is hard uphill battle, but we can’t give up on it.”

Stevenson's group has helped to form The Garden State Coalition for Equality, which includes the national Human Rights Campaign, the local ACLU and other pro-marriage equality groups, and will focus its efforts on the veto override. He called a ballot initiative for gay marriage "an absolute last resort."

Carlos Ball, a professor at Rutgers School of Law-Newark, also disagrees with leaving the decision to legalize gay marriage to the voters.

“I do not believe that, as a general matter, it is a good idea for issues of basic civil rights and liberties to be put up for a majority vote,” he said. “It is one thing for the New Jersey legislature to override Governor Christie's veto of the same-sex marriage bill. It is quite another for the right of same-sex couples in the state to depend on how a majority of their fellow citizens vote.”

(Image from Rutgers-Eagleton poll)

There is also disagreement in the New Jersey legislature about the right approach.

Sen. Weinberg calls gay marriage in New Jersey “long overdue,” but disagrees with Rep. Gusciora’s efforts. She suggested the override fight within the legislature is the strongest path.

State Senate President Steve Sweeney told msnbc that he, like Stevenson, is “philosophically opposed” to putting marriage equality to a vote because civil rights aren't a ballot issue.

Sweeney, a Catholic, who in 2010 abstained from voting on legalizing same-sex marriage, has become a vocal supporter this time around. He believes that an override is possible and said he has identified enough senators willing to support the override.

Rep. Gusciora doesn't disagree with his fellow advocates on the civil rights issue, but he frets that the override could fail and they should seek out an alternative before it does.

“Ballot initiatives are not appropriate for civil rights issues, but if we lost, we would be left with the status quo,” he said.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie answers a question in Trenton, N.J., Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2012, about his statement that he will veto a bill being considered by the legislature to legalize gay marriage. Christie says Democrats have misinterpreted his stance on gay marriage: He says he's offering a compromise, not ducking responsibility, by urging the question settled by voters even though he opposes same-sex nuptials. (Photo by Mel Evans/AP Photo, File)

Gusciora likes the chances at the ballot box in part because he hopes one item already on the ballot could draw a larger number of progressives to the polls in November: a vote to raise the state's minimum wage.

Gusciora's position, though, has ironically aligned him with the GOP, including Gov. Christie who wants to see the issue put to the voters.

Republican Assemblyman John DiMaio agrees with putting the matter up to a public vote. DiMaio, who is in favor of civil unions for same-sex couples, believes marriage should remain as between a man and woman.

“If people decide to change the Constitution, I will go along with the will of the people," he said. "But wanting to override the governor’s veto? No.”

The fight for gay marriage is playing out in different ways throughout the country as advocates work to gain the right to marriage state by state. Battles are taking place in Delaware, Illinois, Hawaii, and Minnesota, either through legislation or court actions. Rhode Island, the only state in New England that does not allow for gay marriage, might see a House vote on the matter soon. Nine states and Washington, D.C., now recognize same-sex marriage.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court is expected to begin hearing oral arguments by the end of the month on the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, which prevents the recognition of gay marriage at the federal level, as well as California's Prop. 8, a voter-approved ban on gay marriage. The Court could rule on the issues by June.

“If DOMA is overturned, we will have a further reason to override in order to give New Jersey residents in civil unions full federal benefits,” said New Jersey's Democratic Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg.