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Asbury Park issues same-sex marriage licenses; vows to defend them

Before Ric Best and Louis Navarrete slipped into Asbury Park’s City Hall on March 5 to complete a marriage license application, the city’s five-member City Council had already begun investigating if Asbury Park could give such licenses to lesbian and gay couples.

“We were starting the domestic partner registry here which was something we had pushed for,” explained John M. Loffredo, an openly gay councilmember. “Then we started benefits for the domestic partners of city employees.”

In January, New Jersey joined three other states in officially recognizing same-sex couples by according domestic partnerships or civil unions. The New Jersey statute grants domestic partners only some of the legal rights and benefits given under state law to legal spouses.

As Asbury Park was getting its local laws in line with the new state law, some city councilmembers concluded the domestic partner law did not go far enough. On March 3, they asked Frederick C. Raffetto, the city attorney, to determine if there were more the city could do for its growing lesbian and gay community.

“They did request that I review whether there was anything else they could do at that time,” Raffetto said. “I was going to do this in a very orderly process to provide advice about what the city could legally do for the gay residents of Asbury Park.”

The city councilmembers choose the mayor and deputy mayor from among their ranks. All the council positions are part-time and pay a whopping $5,000 per year. The city manager and senior city staff are hired by the City Council and they wield some influence. The staffers were arguing that state law already allowed Asbury Park to issue marriage licenses to lesbian and gay couples.

“As this is going on, the city manager and the deputy city clerk were saying ‘Let’s do it,’” Loffredo said. “As letters were going back and forth these guys went in, and put in an application, and the application was accepted.”

When Gavin Newsom, San Francisco’s mayor, began same-sex nuptials there in February, it was only after planning with the National Center for Lesbian Rights and Lambda Legal. The first couples wed in San Francisco were carefully selected.

Asbury Park appeared to be headed down a similarly deliberate path, but when Deputy City Clerk D. Kiki Tomek accepted Best and Navarrete’s application accepted at 3:25 p.m., and started the clock on the required 72-hour waiting period before the license is issued, “real life came in and took over,” said Councilmember Kate Mellina.

Best and Navarrete, partners for 15 years, weren’t interested in becoming icons for the gay marriage movement in the U.S. On the contrary, they just wanted to get married.

“A number of times when they were asked if they would speak to the press they said, ‘No we’re just getting married, we’re private citizens,’” said Joe D’Andrea, publisher of gayasburypark.com and a friend of the two men. “If there was a plan, I would have thought that there would have been dozens of couples lined up on Friday.”

Best, 43, is an artist and Navarrete, 42, is an interior designer who also serves on a local advisory board. As the end of the 72-hour waiting period approached on March 8, the couple told friends that if they saw a swarm of reporters waiting for them outside of Asbury Park’s City Hall, they would instruct the city clerk to mail the license to them.

“They were concerned that it was going to be a media frenzy and they didn’t want any part of that,” D’Andrea said. “They wanted to be treated as if this was the same as any other marriage.”

The possibility of a “media frenzy” was real. Six gay or lesbian couples applied for marriage licenses at Asbury Park on March 8. They will be able to pick up their licenses as soon as March 11.

A few reporters had taken note of the couples, but Best and Navarrete were met by only a single television crew from WNBC and a photographer and reporter from the Asbury Park Press. The couple picked up their license and James Bruno, Asbury Park’s deputy mayor, married the two men just minutes later. D’Andrea and Mellina attended the couple’s wedding and Loffredo served as their witness.

“It was like every other marriage,” D’Andrea said. “It was an exchange of vows, an exchange of rings, a pronouncement that they were married, and a lot of applause.”

Noticeably absent from the wedding and the later press coverage were Mayor Kevin G. Sanders and John J. Hamilton, Jr., the fifth city councilmember. Still, Asbury Park has joined the marriage wars. On March 9, more gay and lesbian couples applied for licenses.

“This all happened so fast,” Raffetto said. “The issue that suddenly threw everybody into a flux was these two gentleman coming in to apply for a marriage license.”

In published reports, Peter C. Harvey, New Jersey’s attorney general, has called the marriage a “hoax” and said he would go to court to stop the city from issuing any more licenses to gay and lesbian couples. The city councilmembers stand by their efforts.

“I don’t know why anybody would think we would use somebody’s civil rights to perpetrate a hoax,” Loffredo said. “It’s no hoax. We’re perfectly sincere in what we’re doing.”

In interviews on March 9, the Asbury Park councilmembers said they expected to be shut down and Harvey, also on March 9, told them to stop processing or issuing licenses to gay and lesbian couples or face criminal sanctions.

Asbury Park complied, but the City Council also voted on March 10, unanimously, to sue the state to have its actions declared legal. For Mellina, the fight was unavoidable.

“It was inevitable in Asbury Park,” Mellina said. “We’ve had a influx of gay couples here over the past several years... I think I’m going to cry when they come in to shut us down.”

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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