Times File Legislative Democrats have become born-again enthusiasts for marriage equality. The top priority of the new 215th Legislature, its leaders say, will be to enact a law giving same-sex couples the right to wedlock instead of civil unions, which have failed to provide the equal legal status that a unanimous New Jersey Supreme Court said is required by the state constitution. How ironic. Two years ago, in the lame-duck session of the 213th Legislature, the Democrats had an open road to enacting the gay-marriage bill that they now designate S1 in the Senate and A1 in the Assembly. They had majorities in both houses, as they do now, with a fellow Democrat, Jon Corzine, in the governor’s office, ready to sign the measure into law. But the Senate killed it, giving it only 14 of the 21 votes it needed. The lone Republican who voted for it, Bill Baroni, no longer is a senator. Nine Democrats voted no or abstained. Among the latter was Steve Sweeney, whom Senate Democrats had just elected majority leader for the incoming 214th Legislature. Sweeney acknowledged that marriage equality was “an important social issue,” but that “the main issue right now is the economy.” The Legislature should consider same-sex marriage at another time, he said. The senator had reason to know that “another time” would be four and perhaps eight years in the future. Republican Chris Christie, who was about to be sworn in as governor, had made clear his opposition to gay marriage and his intention to veto any such bill if it reached his desk. But Sweeney’s decision not to rally the troops who had just chosen him to be their party leader, or even to support the bill himself, was a fatal blow. Sweeney has since had an epiphany. He calls his walkout on the earlier measure “a terrible mistake.” His conversion has been rewarded with lavish praise from Steven Goldstein, head of Garden State Equality and New Jersey’s top lobbyist for same-sex marriage. Goldstein now calls Sweeney “an amazing leader” who “admits when he screws up” and “has become a civil rights champion with unbelievable force and passion.” Unfortunately, all the force and passion in the world won’t neutralize simple arithmetic. Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver say they now have the 21 and 41 Democratic votes to pass their bill. However, they’ll still need Christie’s signature to make it a law — or enough votes to achieve the two-thirds super-majority required in each house to override a veto: 27 in the Senate, 54 in the Assembly. Even if all 24 Senate Democrats and all 48 Assembly Democrats are on board, which would be the longest of long shots, Republican votes would be needed. Given how thoroughly Christie has housebroken the lawmakers of his party, there’s virtually no chance it would happen. Meanwhile, gay-rights advocates also have turned to the courts. Superior Court Judge Linda Feinberg recently allowed a group of same-sex couples to proceed with a lawsuit purporting to show that civil unions haven’t worked as the Supreme Court intended in 2006, when it ruled, 4-3, that such unions were a separate-but-equal alternative to marriage. This route will be time-consuming, however, and eventually will end up right back at the Supreme Court, which by then could have a majority of Christie appointees. Two months from now, Justice Virginia Long will reach the mandatory retirement age of 70; she’s the last remaining justice of the three who argued in 2006 that marriage was the only way to satisfy the constitution’s requirement of equal treatment. One final option would be to push for a same-sex marriage amendment to the state constitution, which Josh Zeitz, a visiting lecturer at Princeton and a 2008 Democratic candidate for the House of Representatives, proposed in a Star-Ledger column last week. As Zeitz pointed out, a constitutional amendment would bypass Christie altogether and go straight to a statewide referendum. To put it on the ballot next November would take only a three-fifths vote in each house of the Legislature, which is exactly the size of the current Democratic majorities. The risk is that the public might reject the amendment, which in turn could make it more difficult to achieve marriage equality via one of the other routes, legislative or judicial. Recent polling has shown that 52 percent of New Jersey residents believe same-sex marriage should be legal, but 52 percent isn’t overwhelming support and is within the polls’ margin of error. A lot would depend on how effective were the public campaigns and get-out-the-vote efforts of proponents and opponents. Interestingly, a leading activist against gay marriage, John Tomicki, also has proposed a statewide referendum on the issue. In football, there’s a period near the end of a blowout game called garbage time, when a team that has played badly and is hopelessly behind suddenly begins making plays and scoring touchdowns. It’s meaningless in terms of the ultimate outcome, and it prompts the team’s fans to scream: “Why didn’t you do this when it would have made a difference?” For backers of equal marital rights, the Democrats’ late-blooming enthusiasm for same-sex marriage invites the same reaction. Follow the Times of Trenton on Twitter.