Same-Sex Couples in NJ Want Marriage Rights

A lawsuit challenging equal protection for LGBT couples is moving forward

Children of LGBT parents show their support at the 2011 Equality Walk (courtesy of Garden State Equality)

Last week, a New Jersey Superior Court Judge ruled that Lambda Legal will be allowed to proceed with its case seeking marriage equality on behalf of Garden State Equality, a statewide LGBT advocacy organization, along with seven same-sex couples and their children who say they are harmed by the state’s unequal civil union system.

“We are delighted that the New Jersey Superior Court will allow this case to continue and permit us to demonstrate how the legislature’s crafting of a status other than marriage for same-sex couples has failed to provide them the equality promised by the New Jersey Constitution,” says Hayley Gorenberg, Lambda Legal’s deputy legal director. “Civil union relegates New Jersey’s same-sex couples to a second-class status that keeps them and their families vulnerable. By moving to dismiss, the government was trying to prevent us from showing exactly how the current classification system based on sexual orientation harms families. New Jersey’s exclusion interferes during medical crises, denies them health insurance, and leads to discrimination against them even in funeral homes. These families need marriage equality and should not have to live with a law that treats them as inferior.”

This latest decision was a defeat to New Jersey’s Office of the Attorney General that argued to have the case dismissed. But the ruling will allow Lambda Legal to proceed with its equal protection claim and for Garden State Equality to campaign to get the legislature to pass a marriage equality bill, and to accumulate enough votes in the legislature to possibly override a gubernatorial veto.

“Garden State Equality continues to receive complaints from same-sex couples across the state about this confusing and discriminatory system,” admits Steven Goldstein, Chair and CEO of Garden State Equality. “After more than four years, the civil union law continues to be among the greatest civil rights failures of our time. It is time to end this cruel experiment and replace it with the only status that will ever provide equality, and that’s marriage.”

Last June, Lambda Legal also filed a lawsuit for marriage equality, arguing that barring same-sex couples from marriage and relegating them to civil union violates the constitutional rights of those couples and their children. Since New Jersey’s civil union law took effect in February 2007, Garden State Equality reports that many employers in the state have refused to recognize civil unions as equal to marriage, and therefore do not grant equal health benefits to partners of employees. Many employers and hospitals argue that if the legislature intended for the civil union law to be the same as marriage, the legislature would have used the same name. But because of the real-world disparity between civil unions and marriage, some hospitals do not allow civil union partners to make medical decisions for one another, or even to visit one another in the emergency room. This become a serious issue when the couple has children, making it impossible for one parent to make critical decisions in the other’s absence.

“We’re doing this for our family, of course, because we don’t want to have to continue to go through what we do on a day-to-day basis,” says Elena Quinones, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, along with her partner Liz Quinones and their four children. She’s one of seven couples who brought this case forward. “But we are also doing this so that families in the future won’t have to walk around with a binder full of papers justifying themselves to everyone.”