Is now the time?

Is New Jersey ready to legalize gay marriage?

The U.S. Supreme Court decision last week overturning the Defense of Marriage Act doesn't directly affect the state's gay couples. But the ruling, in which the court said legally married gay couples could not be denied federal benefits, certainly adds momentum to the call for equal marriage rights.

The decision makes it much harder to argue that civil unions, which are allowed in New Jersey, are equal to same-sex marriages. Those marriages, legal in 13 states and the District of Columbia, are now entitled to federal recognition in a way that civil unions are not.

Our nation is reaching a tipping point on marriage equality. State lawmakers should use that momentum to overturn Gov. Chris Christie's February 2012 veto of a bill to legalize gay marriage in New Jersey.

Christie, who reacted quickly last week to criticize the high court's DOMA decision, reiterated that he would not sign a marriage-equality law. He has suggested instead that the question be put to voters, asking them to amend the state constitution.

It may come to that. But before it does, lawmakers should attempt to overturn Christie's veto. Such an important civil-rights decision shouldn't be left up to a referendum. The Legislature has a duty to make this decision. And voting for marriage equity is not only the right thing to do, it is also the popular thing to do.

This is a difficult issue for many people who were raised to think of homosexuals as second-class citizens. Even liberals have come late to the realization that only full marriage rights can guarantee gay couples equal protection under the law.

As recently as a few years ago, leading Democrats in the state and nation were still saying that civil unions ought to be enough for same-sex couples. But, as a 2008 report by a commission charged with evaluating New Jersey's civil-union law found, couples in those unions do not enjoy the same rights as those in heterosexual marriages. The commission said, "The Civil Union Act invites and encourages unequal treatment of same-sex couples and their children."

A recent Rutgers-Eagleton survey showed how quickly opinion has shifted. Of state residents polled, 59 percent said they would vote in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage. A similar poll in 2008 put support for gay marriage at 49 percent.

It is clear that same-sex marriage will eventually be legal in New Jersey - whether because of challenges to New Jersey's civil-union law now making their way through courts, because of a public referendum or because of action by the Legislature.

Is now the time? Yes.

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