A proposal to legalize gay marriage in New Jersey narrowly passed a key state Senate committee on Monday, paving the way for a legislative showdown this week and boosting the possibility New Jersey will join the handful of U.S. states allowing gay couples to wed.
After seven hours of public testimony, the state Senate Judiciary Committee voted seven to six to send the bill that would legalize same-sex marriage to a vote before the full state Senate. That vote is set for Thursday.
Advocates of gay marriage are racing to get the measure approved in the legislature and signed into law before mid-January, when Governor Jon Corzine, who said he would sign it, leaves office.
Corzine, a liberal Democrat, was defeated in his re-election attempt last month by Republican Chris Christie, who has vowed to veto the bill.
Five U.S. states have legalized gay marriage -- Iowa, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont.
Another 40 states have specific laws that ban it, and the movement to legalize it has seen recent setbacks. Last week the state senate in New York voted against legalizing gay marriage, and last month Maine voters repealed a gay marriage law.
In the New Jersey Senate, the bill's fate is uncertain and the vote is likely to be close. The state Assembly has not scheduled a vote. Both houses are Democrat-controlled.
Among those who voted against the measure, Republican state Senator Gerald Cardinale criticized the effort to get it passed before Corzine leaves office. He said Corzine's "mandate has been soundly revoked" by his loss at the polls.
"Such a governor should be doing nothing but the routine business of a nonpolicy-making, nonpartisan nature. To attempt to engage in controversial, far-reaching, almost civilization-changing public policy decisions speaks to a character flaw beyond comparison," he said.
New Jersey recognizes same-sex civil unions, designed to give gay couples the same legal rights as heterosexual couples.
Advocates of gay marriage say civil unions are inadequate.
"At best, civil unions are separate but equal, and we all know separate is never equal," veteran civil rights activist Julian Bond said at the New Jersey hearing, referring to the racial segregation that once existed in the United States.
A gay couple, Marsha Shapiro and Louise Walpin of South Brunswick, New Jersey, described troubles they have experienced with insurance companies, state benefits programs and legal guardianship as they raised four children, two with disabilities, because they are not legally married.
Breaking down in tears, Shapiro said: "If this isn't a marriage, what is?"