New Jersey lawmakers have passed a bill that would provide same-sex couples the right to wed -- a move put forth in defiance of the state's Republican governor, who's vowed to veto the measure and has instead called for a referendum to settle the issue.
State assembly members on Thursday voted 41-33, with two members abstaining, in favor of the "Marriage Equality and Religious Exemption Act." The Senate approved the measure on Monday by a 24 to 16 count.
But Gov. Chris Christie, the subject of political speculation as a possible GOP vice presidential candidate, has said the issue "should not be decided by 121 people in the statehouse in Trenton."
The governor is expected to "act swiftly" to knock it down when the bill reaches his desk, said Michael Drewniak, a spokesman for Christie.
Recent polling, meanwhile, suggests that New Jersey voters are slightly in favor of legalizing such unions.
Fifty-two percent of state voters approve the measure, according to a recent Quinnipiac University poll.
Still, Christie's push for a referendum may offer a few insights into the governor's political acumen, which continues to excite the Republican party.
A popular vote would largely absolve him from making good on a pledge to veto a bill coming from a Democrat-controlled legislature -- a move, analysts say, that may help preserve his conservative credentials for the national stage while also adhering to the apparent will of New Jersey voters.
But Christie's Democratic opponents argue that a referendum shouldn't be used to decide civil rights issues, pointing to historic legislative and judicial decisions regarding the rights of African-Americans and women.
If Christie vetoes the measure, "the battle for overriding the veto begins," said Steven Goldstein, a spokesman for the organization Garden State Equality, which has lobbied for the bill.
Lawmakers would need a two-thirds majority in both houses to override a veto and will have until the legislative session ends in January 2014 to do so. But the bill's opponents have pledged to the block the potential override.
"Since the legislature will have two years to come up with the votes to override the veto, there will be significant pressure placed upon those legislators," said Carlos Ball, a law professor at Rutgers University in Newark.
At the same time, lawmakers in New Jersey are expected to pay close attention to upcoming state elections in New York, looking for signs of fallout after four Republican state senators sided with Democrat Gov. Andrew Cuomo to legalize same-sex marriage.
New Jersey currently allows for civil unions, which Christie says he supports, though a series of discrimination lawsuits are also currently working their way through the state courts.
With Hawaii and Delaware joining the list last month, five other states currently recognize civil unions.
A similar battle is also shaping up in Maryland, where Gov. Martin O'Malley -- a Democrat -- has pushed for his state to join the seven others that allow same-sex couples to marry.
Washington state, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Iowa, New York and the District of Columbia, currently allow such marriages.
Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire signed a bill to change the law on Monday.