- Associated Press - Monday, February 13, 2012

TRENTON, N.J. — In a move that supporters called a civil rights milestone, New Jersey’s state Senate on Monday passed a bill to recognize same-sex marriages, marking the first time state lawmakers officially endorsed the idea - despite the promise of a veto by Gov. Chris Christie.

Monday’s vote was 24-16 in favor of the bill, a major swing from January 2010, when the Senate rejected it 20-14. Two Democrats voted no and two Republicans voted yes in what was otherwise a party-line vote.

“It means the world isn’t changing; it means the world has already changed,” Steven Goldstein, chairman of the gay-rights group Garden State Equality said after the vote. “So wake up and smell the equality.”

Before the vote, Marsha Shapiro squeezed the hand of longtime partner Louise Walpin, and reflected on how a body that rejected gay marriage two years ago was about to change its stance. “The pride will overpower the sorrow,” she said.

But opponents say it’s “an exercise in futility” even if the lower house, the Assembly, passes the bill Thursday as expected, given Mr. Christie’s veto vow.

Len Deo, president of New Jersey Family Policy Council, called the vote “something we have to go through” and said it would be made moot with a veto.

While New Jersey differs from most states in that it has no law or state constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, neither its court nor lawmakers have allowed gay nuptials.

Seven states and Washington, D.C., allow gay marriage. Washington state joined the list Monday when Gov. Christine Gregoire signed a same-sex marriage law surrounded by gay-rights supporters.

“I’m proud our same-sex couples will no longer be treated as separate but equal,” she said. But same-sex couples can’t walk down Washington’s aisles yet. The law takes effect June 7, but opponents on multiple fronts already are preparing to fight.

Opponents planned to file a challenge Monday that could put the law on hold pending the outcome of a November vote. Separately, an initiative was filed at the beginning of the session that opponents of gay marriage say could lead to the new law being overturned.

In 2006, the New Jersey’s Supreme Court ruled that the state had to give the legal protections of marriage to gay couples, but need not call those protections marriage. Lawmakers responded by creating civil unions rather than marriage, but gay advocates said that wasn’t enough.

When the New Jersey Senate last voted on gay marriage two years ago, several last-minute defections killed the bill. But the bill returned this year after Senate President Stephen Sweeney, Deptford Democrat, vowed to make gay marriage a priority this year.

Mr. Christie last month said he’d veto the legislation if it passed, saying such a fundamental change should be up to a vote of the people, and he has called for a referendum on the issue. Democratic leaders say they will not allow that, arguing that the majority should not be entrusted with minority rights.

Instead, gay-rights supporters are hopeful that they can get enough lawmakers on their side to override Mr. Christie’s expected veto.

It would take two-thirds of both chambers of the Legislature - which would mean flipping at least three Senate votes - and would have to happen by the time the current legislative session ends in January 2014. Mr. Sweeney said he knows which senators he’ll try to persuade, but won’t name them publicly.