Make marriage equality a reality
Today, the New Jersey Legislature will consider a proposal to grant same-sex couples the right to marry. The proposal will be considered today by a Senate committee and could be posted for a full Senate vote later in the week.
According to a recent Eagleton Institute of Politics poll, New Jerseyans favor legalizing same-sex nuptials by a 46 percent to 42 percent margin, with 12 percent unsure, most of whom would accept legalizing marriage equality. Last week, 650 people traveled to the New Jersey Statehouse to support the bill's passage, while only a dozen marriage equality opponents, mainly a group of Orthodox Jews from Lakewood, arrived to counter protest. The scales seem tipped in favor of marriage equality supporters.
I must urge caution, however, to those who may make such an assumption. I am a proud resident of New York; a vocal member of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community; and as of last week, I was confident that my state would not become the 31st state to deny its LGBT citizens equal marriage rights. I was confident that New York, a state known for its progressivism, especially in the realm of civil rights, would buck this trend. Yet on Thursday, by a chilling margin of 38 votes to 24, marriage equality was denied in a state whose legislature has a Democratic majority and a few progressive Republicans, and whose governor pledged to approve the proposal.
Eagleton's recent poll is the reason why I urge caution. It reveals that only 2 percent of New Jerseyans say that extending marriage equality to same-sex couples is the most important issue of the day, while 15 percent say it is one of a few very important issues. Another 37 percent call the issue "somewhat important," while 44 percent say it is "not at all important."
This information suggests that the biggest obstacle faced by those who would like to see marriage equality within the next week is not a strong and vocal opposition. Even among those who oppose same-sex marriages, 61 percent see the issue as "not important." Instead, what we should fear is mounting apathy to the issue. This apathy can affect the outcome that we see in the coming week, affecting the votes of members of the legislature. A recent statement by New Jersey Senate Majority Leader Stephen Sweeney suggests that this is true. At the most recent New Jersey League of Municipalities convention in Atlantic City, he expressed fears that voters concerned about the economy might resent elected officials who appear distracted by social issues. While he backtracked on this comment, this statement provides us with a glimpse of the considerations that legislators make in conducting their duties. It is clear that having the support of a slim majority of eligible voters is not enough; the level of enthusiasm behind this support is also a consideration, and one that marriage equality advocates must take into account as they work towards marriage equality.
In order to ensure that marriage equality becomes a reality, we must remind our peers why today's drive to make marriage equality a reality is the most important issue of the day. We must do this both before a vote occurs and, hopefully, after the measure is passed in order to help allay the fears of our allies in the legislature, who fear that voters will look back on a vote in support of gay marriage as distraction from other priorities of the day.
We must remind our friends and family that this issue cannot be deferred any longer, and that it is not a competing priority with the economy. We only have a little over a month left to make marriage equality a possibility in New Jersey. For the next month, we will have a governor who has pledged to sign a marriage equality bill into law, but he will soon be replaced with a governor who has vowed to oppose efforts to legalize same-sex unions, ensuring that any consideration of this issue will be deferred for the next four to eight years. Furthermore, a single vote on this issue will not unreasonably delay the state government's work to address the economy, an issue that the Senate will have the next millennium to work on. If anything, legalizing marriage equality will help New Jersey's economy. With the neighboring state of New York recognizing same-sex marriages performed in other states, and with New Jersey being positioned between the two metropolitan areas that have the number one and number 10 LGBT populations of all metropolitan areas, New Jersey can expect a generous economic return for legalizing gay marriage.
We must also remind our peers that the question of marriage equality is primarily civic, and not religious, in nature. Cass Sunstein, an American legal scholar, has said, "What would the right to marry mean without public institutions which must spend taxpayers' money to define and create the institution of marriage? Rights are public goods: taxpayer-funded and government managed social services designed to improve collective and individual well being." Accepting this definition, we see marriage as a bundle of legally-conferred rights, services and benefits that all taxpayers contribute to, and we must ask our peers whether we are truly providing equality to all if one group of taxpayers is allowed access to this generous bundle of rights when another is not. Religious institutions have struggled with the issue of same-sex marriage for some time. The extension of the legal right of marriage to same-sex couples, however, is in no way means an extension of the religious rite of marriage to same-sex couples. The Legislature's confirmation of marriage rights to same-sex couples does not abridge a religious community's liberty to determine their internal policies, privileges and rites toward same-sex individuals. Houses of worship will continue to be able to decide whether they would like to bless same-sex unions for their right to do so was justly protected under the free exercise clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Therefore, all citizens can have equal access to the legal institution of marriage, and no citizen will be forced to bless these legal unions if their religion prohibits them from doing so.
Finally, we must ask our peers whether or not our current predicament is fair. We must ask those around us if we are living up to our principle of equality when one group of citizens can get married merely by proposing to their loved one, while an LGBT person must literally ask 8,682,661 New Jerseyans for the right to marry their loved one.
Once our peers see the urgency of the situation, along with the benefits of action, the unthreatening nature of extending marriage equality, and the unfairness of our current predicament, perhaps they too will see that marriage equality truly is the most important issue of the day in New Jersey. They will know that this is our last opportunity in the next four to eight years to prove that we believe in equality for all; and then, they will only have to ask themselves whether they will take advantage of this historic opportunity to make New Jersey the first state of 31 states to favor equality over unfairness and discrimination. They can do this by visiting Garden State Equality at http://www.gardenstateequality.org/about.html. This Web site will direct them on how to contact their elected representative in the Senate through a process that takes less than 30 seconds.
Ben West is a Rutgers College senior majoring in political science. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.