N.J. Civil Unions Are Being Challenged


6 Couples Sue To Marry

Once upon a time, Connecticut, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and Vermont offered civil unions. Now, only New Jersey continues to recognize civil unions because the other three states have legalized same-sex marriage.

Problem with Civil Unions

Although the protections and benefits of a civil union are greater than that of a domestic partnership, they do not provide all the hundreds of protections automatically received by heterosexual marriages.  Like domestic partnerships, civil union couples must take additional legal steps for themselves and their children on such matters as taxation.

Outside the state in which they are granted, civil unions may not be recognized.  It is a problem if, for example, a couple faces a medical emergency while traveling, one partner may not be permitted to make decisions for the other.  Employers do not have to give health insurance for parties in a civil union.

Lambda Legal

Representing supporters of gay marriage, Lambda Legal, urged a judge to “order that New Jersey allow same-sex couples to marry,” according to the state court motion today in Trenton.  Following the success of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on June 26 that struck down a U.S. law denying federal benefits to same-sex couples, Lambda Legal has litigated the question for a decade.

For many families, the greatest drawback to civil unions is the “separate and unequal” status they convey.  According to the filed motion, “state-sanctioned marriage provides the key to the full array of federal marital benefits.  The discrimination manifest in relegating same-sex couples to civil union establishes the clearest possible violation of the state constitutional guarantee of equal rights and benefits.”

Six same-sex couples argued in state court on July 3rd, that keeping couples in civil unions instead of allowing them to marry violates several constitutional rights and “simply cannot be justified.” The U.S. Supreme Court decision on June 26th giving same-sex couples federal benefits in states with legalized gay marriage has many couples feeling cheated by their states’ opposition to gay marriage.

Lawyers’ Arguments

Attorneys Lawrence Lustberg of the Gibbons Law firm and Hayley Gorenberg on behalf of the six couples and their children, in a fifty-three page brief, said “by relegating same-sex couples in New Jersey to civil union, the state denies them equal rights and benefits.”  Relying heavily on the logic and word choices of Supreme Court Justice’s Anthony Kennedy, Lustberg and Gorenberg mention the burden of “the indignity and stigma of civil unions.”

The lawyers have asked Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson to grant them the right to marry immediately following the Supreme Court ruling in United States v. Windsor on June 26.

On that day, Jacobson agreed to fast-track the case and scheduled arguments for August 15, 2013. The case is Garden State Equality v. Dow.

Precendents Has Been Established

All three branches of state government have said gay couples should receive the same rights and and privileges as heterosexuals, the lawyers argued.

In 2006, New Jersey passed its civil union law, that says gay couples should receive “all the rights and benefits that married heterosexual couples enjoy, but not calling it “marriage.”

Also in 2006, the N.J. Supreme Court ruled in Lewis vs. Harris that gay couples should receive “all the rights and benefits that married heterosexual couples enjoy.”

In 2011, Garden State Equality and several gay couples sued because they felt the civil union law did not provide equal rights for same-sex couples.

In vetoing a same-sex marriage bill in 2012, Governor Chris Christie said he was “adamant that same-sex couples in a civil union deserve the very same rights and benefits enjoyed by married couples.”

Governor Christie’s Position

After the Windsor ruling, Republican Christie, up for reelection, bashed the Supreme Court and said he would still veto the same-sex marriage bill. New Jersey Democrats said they will hold vote to override Christie’s Veto.

Led by Senate President Stephen Sweeney, New Jersey Democrats held a press conference on July 2, 2013 to sway Christie.  Sweeney urged Republicans to allow a “conscience vote” on the issue given the Supreme Court’s strikedown of DOMA.

Christie supports a referendum in November with voters deciding whether to amend the state’s constitution to allow same-sex marriage.  Says Christie, “ I don’t know why the advocates for same-sex marriage and, more importantly, why the Democratic legislators are so afraid to let the people decide.  If what they are saying is true, this’ll be a layup for them.”