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Yesterday, the New Jersey Supreme Court handed down an audacious ruling that truly changes the legal definition of marriage in New Jersey.

In a 7-0 decision, New Jersey's Supreme Court decided that gay couples "must be afforded on equal terms the same rights and benefits enjoyed by opposite-sex couples under the civil marriage statutes." In a 4-3 decision, the Court held that "the name to be given to the statutory scheme that provides full rights and benefits to same-sex couples, whether marriage or some other form, is a matter left to the democratic process."

So what did New Jersey decide? The legislature has 180 days to pass a law giving gay couples 100% legally fulfilled civil unions or gay marriage. And so the fight goes on. It is the job of the legislature, which is divided 49-31 in the State Assembly for the Democrats and 22-18 for the Democrats in the State Senate and Governor Corzine, a Democrat, to decide which course to take. Based on public statements, Speaker of the Assembly, Democrat Joe Roberts, and President of the Senate, Democrat Richard Codey, and Corzine have all said they support civil unions, not gay marriage.

I understand there are differences of opinion on this matter. Marriage is fundamentally a religious institution adopted by the legal realm for certain purposes. But no religious institution will ever be required by the state to marry gay couples. Marriage should be afforded to gay couples simply because people who love each other and want to share a life together should be afforded the same rights and privileges as everyone else.

Gay marriage does not degrade the institution of marriage. Find me one heterosexual couple who has gotten divorced because they couldn't stand the fact that gays can get married. Gay marriage is not detrimental to the well-being of children. Find me one child who has developmental issues that couldn't be caused by a broken heterosexual home or a foster care home or single parents.

We are a society that fundamentally believes in freedom and liberty. We believe that people may live their lives as they please, with little inference from the government except when society makes a choice to intervene to help people. Gay couples, regardless of your religious views, want to form families. They want to raise children. They want to grow old in suburban communities and get a dog and a white-picket pence (and I could make a lot of puns right now, but I'll refrain because this is a very serious subject).

The point is, we have a fundamental obligation, in fact, a constitutional charge, to "form a more perfect union." This more perfect union can only come to fruition if we extend liberty, promote tolerance, search for understanding, and command respect by loving our neighbors as we love ourselves.

Democratic leaders who oppose gay marriage are wrong. They're not bad people (though I suspect some of them privately support gay marriage but oppose it in public out of political necessity). Our party has always stood up for the rights of the disadvantaged and the underprivileged, the forgotten and the downtrodden. We should not stop here.

This fight will not come easily. Gay couples will not be able to marry all around this nation for decades to come. But there is hope.

As a National Pew Research Poll conducted in August 2006 found, gay marriage is opposed by 56% of Americans and favored by 35% of Americans. But when you look at the underlying numbers in the polls, you find an interesting results. Support for gay marriage is directly correlated to age, rising as the voter is younger. Those 65 and over, our grandparents, oppose gay marriage overwhelmingly, 73%-16%. Those between 50-64, most of our parents, oppose gay marriage 61%-30%. Those between 30-49, some of our parents and people who are between the Baby Boomers and their children, oppose gay marriage 55%-38%. And we, the 18-29 year olds, support gay marriage 53%-38%. As the 65+ generation passes away over the next 30 years, support for gay marriage will come to parity with its opposition, and in forty to fifty years, a strong majority of Americans will support gay marriage.

But the gay rights movement must watch itself and not move precipitously down the gay marriage path, because if it oversteps its bounds, it will risk a backlash that could make gay marriage difficult to obtain for nearly a century.

The correct path right now is to oppose constitutional amendments at the state and federal levels, fight back laws and amendments that have already passed, educate the American people about the commitment and love of gay couples, and press for domestic partnerships and civil unions in most states and gay marriage in the few liberal states where it can pass. Federally-approved gay marriage will come eventually, but progress is a slow process and it will take decades.

New Jersey is a rarity among states. A Zogby poll in February 2006 showed that New Jerseyans support gay marriage by a 56%-39%. Even 60% of New Jersey Catholics support gay marriage. With overwhelming support such as this, New Jersey can enact gay marriage with ease. But most states are not as liberal. And it will take time to move gay marriage through the legislatures of the Northeast and the West Coast, where they have the most chances of passing.

Wednesday's ruling was a massively important decision. But the fight goes on, especially for those of us in the Democratic Party who support equal rights. Our battle is to convince our leaders to support our gay brothers and sisters in their struggle for equality.