President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney took opposing stances on same-sex marriage last week, reigniting a debate that has personal, business and political implications for South Jersey.
“Good or bad, it’s got the discussion going again,” Tom Carlucci, a New Gretna gay man, said of Obama’s support of same-sex marriage.
Carlucci, who has been in a 16-year committed relationship with his partner, James Truax, said he sees Obama’s stance as a conversation starter.
“Like most discussions, it depends on where it goes,” Carlucci said.
Not everyone is eager to allow same-sex marriages. And even among advocates, opinions remain divided on how much of a priority should be placed on legalizing same-sex marriage.
“I would rather the people across from me not lose their home,” said Vince Grimm, the head of GABLES, a Cape May group that advocates on behalf of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered community.
With unemployment in double digits in South Jersey, Grimm said, he would rather state government address economic issues before legalizing same-sex marriage, particularly because civil unions already provide homosexual couples legal protection.
“Right now, I think there are other things that are more important,” said the 75-year-old, who was a teenager when he came out as gay.
Others at GABLES, however, see Obama’s stance as just the start of a larger change in the future.
“Is it going to have a long-lasting impact? Yes, but in the future,” said Craig van Baal, a political operative for the group. “I think it will take time.”
The number of civil unions in New Jersey has substantially decreased every year since they became legal in 2007. Civil union registrations were down last year to 689 — less than a third of the registrations from five years ago, according to figures from the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services.
In Atlantic County, the number of civil unions has been rather unspectacular — 12 so far this year. In Cape May County, there has been only one, while Ocean County has had six and Cumberland four, according to this year’s state figures.
“The problem is why would anyone go to Atlantic City and get an inferior civil union when they can go to New York for marriage?” said Steven Goldstein, of Garden State Equality, a statewide group that has been lobbying in support of same-sex marriage.
With the region desperately seeking a new infusion of tourism dollars, legalizing same-sex marriage could provide the impetus, Goldstein said.
“No place in our state, and perhaps our region, has more to gain than Atlantic City,” he said. “Economic revitalization is linked to marriage equality.”
However, surveys of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered travelers show that marriage or civil union ceremonies tend to cost less than one-third of a typical wedding, with the average spent at about $5,000, according to San Francisco-based research firm, Community Marketing. Less than 30 percent of those who had a ceremony also had 11 or more people book hotel rooms in connection with the event, according to the firm’s survey, which was conducted last year.
Still, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered travelers account for a sizeable portion of the tourism industry, generating more than $65 billion nationally, according to Community Marketing. New York City retained its rank as the most popular destination. Philadelphia also made the list of top 25 destinations, tied in 10th place with seven other cities.
While Atlantic City completely missed the list, it recently was named an up-and-coming destination in a separate survey, according to Joel Ballesteros, director of lesbian gay, bisexual and transgendered marketing for Resorts Casino Hotel.
Ballesteros said he believes the city can do more to welcome and market to gay travelers.
“The business has been so good for us that there is more room to expand,” he said. “I don’t think there is any doubt or question whether it’s profitable.”
More so than the business impact, the debate over the legalization of same-sex marriage is a moral question for some.
“They are trying to redefine the definition of marriage,” the Rev. Ralph Snook, pastor of the Chestnut Assembly of God in Vineland, said of same-sex marriage supporters. “I don’t see it (as) helpful at all.”
Snook successfully lobbied the Vineland City Council in 2009 to pass a resolution defining marriage as between one man and one woman. The resolution remains on the books in Vineland and was passed to send a message to state legislators about the council’s opposition to same-sex marriage, Snook said.
Many of the members of the council who voted in favor of the resolution no longer serve on the body. Those members, as well as Mayor Robert Romano and former Mayor Perry Barse, did not respond to request for comment or declined to comment on the issue.
Snook said he remains committed to opposing same-sex marriage, traveling to Trenton again this year to address the Legislature.
“This can’t be compared to a civil right,” he said, adding he believes homosexuality is a lifestyle choice.
Religious beliefs often spill onto the political front.
In New Jersey, the Legislature enacted the Domestic Partnership Act in 2004. The state Supreme Court ruled that more equal protection was needed, and then-Gov. Jon S. Corzine signed civil unions into law in 2006. A lawsuit was filed in Superior Court in June claiming that civil unions are unequal. In February, the Legislature passed a bill legalizing gay marriage, but Gov. Chris Christie vetoed it, saying he wanted a referendum.
“For the longest time, marriage has been marriage, and it’s between a man and a woman — it shouldn’t be an issue,” Atlantic County Freeholder Frank Giordano, a Republican, said. “If the Bible is for it, then I’m for it. And if the Bible’s not for it, then I’m not for it.”
Others, such as Assemblyman Chris Brown, R-Atlantic, said the state already guarantees equal protection to same-sex couples through civil unions. He said he believes Obama has politicized the issue.
“Only one short year ago, President Obama told us he believed marriage should remain between a man and a woman,” Brown said. “I find it hard to believe it is a coincidence that his position changed during an election season. If he truly felt this way he should have stated this position from the beginning. To do so would have been true leadership.”
State Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic, who consistently has voted in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage, said this recent debate will only help quicken its legalization.
“Those who oppose it are on the wrong side of history,” he said. “The more conversation, the more likely it’s going to happen sooner rather than later.”
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