After a full day of emotional debate and testimony, legislation to allow same-sex marriage in New Jersey cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee Monday night.
The vote, which came just after 10 p.m., passed by an expected 7-6.
The move paves the way for a debate and vote in the State Senate. Senate President Dick Codey promises to post the so-called marriage equality bill to the full Senate floor for debate and a vote on Thursday.
If the vote passes in the Senate, then the Assembly would likely take it up later this month or early in January.
The controversial bill would grant same-sex partners recognition as "married couples." Current law gives them the same state rights as married heterosexuals, but describes their relationship as a civil union.
"Let's show the entire nation that New Jersey citizens are capable of holding an honest debate on a measure of such social importance," said Judiciary Chairman Senator Paul Sarlo(D-Bergen), who plans to vote 'no" on gay marriage.
On the other side, some lawmakers said they were eager to push the bill through to passage.
"We can move to a more compassionate, understanding and loving society, said the other co-sponsor, Senator Ray Lesniak(D-Union). "We can change fear to love, hate to compassion, cruelty to kindness," said Lesniak.
"It might actually be easier to be on the budget committee than the Judiciary Committee today," quipped gay marriage sponsor Senator Loretta Weinberg(D-Bergen), referring to New Jersey's infamous budget problems.
"In this country we do not afford some people full civil rights and other people half civil rights," said Senator Weinberg.
The lawmakers also heard from residents.
A Montclair woman, mother of two and civil union partner, Gina Pastino, testified about the difficulties her partner had when Gina went to the hospital with a brain inflamation. Gina's doctor wouldn't share her condition at first with Gina's partner, and she "was overcome with fear and shame."
NAACP President Julian Bond testified, "Gay rights are civil rights, adding "Like race, our sexuality is not (changeable)."
Even leading clerics have voiced their support. "Marriage is a union of one man and one woman and has its roots in natural law," testified Patrick Branigan, representing the Catholic Bishops of New Jersey. Branigan said the Bishops, who once opposed the state's civil union law, now support its enforcement fully. "Instead of trying to redefine marriage, the state of New Jersey should education the public and enforce existing laws," he said.
But opposition is fierce. "Only a few elitists and I would say left-leaning judges, and legislators, have approved" gay marriage elsewhere, said Senator Gerald Cardinale(R-Bergen). Cardinale called on the legislature allowing the people to vote, as they did last month in Maine.
Supporters of gay marriage know their last chance to change the law is during this lame duck session, since sitting Governor and Democrat Jon Corzine promises he would sign it into law.
Incoming Republican Governor Chris Christie has said he would veto such a bill if it passes after he takes office January 19th.
New York State rejected a gay marriage bill last week, but currently there are five states that recognize same sex marriage -- Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts and Vermont already have it on the books, while a New Hampshire law legalizing the practice takes effect Jan. 1.