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Gay Marriage in N.J.: Which Side of History Will You Be On?

Deborah J. Vagins,
ACLU Washington Legislative Office
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November 19, 2009

(Originally posted in the New Jersey Star-Ledger.)

As our state legislature gears up to vote on marriage equality in the lame-duck session, we have one question for lawmakers: Which side of history do you want to be on?

A state commission last year found that gay and lesbian families suffer because civil unions are not equal to marriages. Many people in the state fail to understand that civil unions do not keep the promise to same-sex couples that their rights will be the same as married couples in areas like health care, taxes, retirement and of course social recognition. Every aspect of life is affected.

Recent polls — including a 2009 Gannett-Monmouth University poll — show that more New Jerseyans support same-sex marriage than oppose it. Each day, more people throughout America believe in marriage equality. Young Americans increasingly accept gay people and support their rights, including the right to unite in marriage.

Struggles for civil rights, including the ACLU’s 1967 fight for interracial marriage in Loving vs. Virginia, inevitably end on the side of securing rights rather than restricting them. Marriage equality is inevitable. The question is whether New Jersey legislators will live up to our nation’s vision of equality and justice by recognizing gay families or turn their backs on progress as well as fairness.

The level of support for marriage equality in New Jersey ensures that legislators will not pay a political price for embracing equality. Indeed, opposition will put them in the company of people like George Wallace and William Fulbright, who lived to regret, and reverse, their opposition to laws ensuring racial equality. Strom Thurmond signed the Southern Manifesto opposing school desegregation, as did Fulbright, and filibustered for a full 24 hours to stop the Civil Rights Act of 1957. Despite his lifelong track record of racism, Thurmond later voted to extend the Voting Rights Act and to create a holiday in celebration of Martin Luther King’s birthday.

If history’s lessons and today’s polls aren’t enough to convince fence-sitting legislators, they need not look further than New Jersey’s largest city to see gains in public acceptance. Despite a perception that African-American communities balk at gay rights and marriage equality, Newark’s Mayor Cory Booker has become one of our state’s most vocal advocates for equal rights and creating an environment that has allowed diversity to flourish.

At City Hall, Booker raises a pride flag in June and performs civil unions on Valentine’s Day. But more substantively, he recently formed a commission to advise him on issues in the lesbian and gay community, and he helped pave the way for an after-school program that will serve as a safe harbor for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth.

He has not experienced political backlash. He has instead earned the respect and support of New Jerseyans across political parties and communities, because gay couples and their loved ones vote, pay taxes and contribute to the economy, and they favor the officials who favor their rights.

After an eight-year debate and an inadequate civil union compromise, the time has come for marriage equality in New Jersey. Marriage equality offers benefits to all New Jerseyans, and not only the benefits of social equality — it benefits our state’s bottom line. Same-sex marriage would result in immediate cash flow in a state with a balance sheet billions of dollars in the red. Gay couples would flock to New Jersey to celebrate their marriages in beautiful shore towns and mountain vistas. They would move to New Jersey, bringing their tax dollars and brainpower with them.

Our legislators must consider what they want to tell their grandchildren — that they sided with human rights and dignity for families, or that they sided with discrimination, disenfranchisement and denial of essential rights. If history is any indicator, the future is clear — the legislators who vote for marriage will look back with pride because they moved our state forward. The ones who vote against it will be remembered as latter-day Strom Thurmonds, who fostered injustice instead of equal rights. Lawmakers shouldn’t vote in the spirit of a prejudiced past, they should vote with history for a future of equality. Take Action: Tell New Jersey’s legislators they can be on the right side of history by supporting the right of gay and lesbian couples to marry.

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