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    December 15, 2006

    N.J.'s glass of water, almost full

    Posted by: Chris

    WaterNew Jersey lawmakers passed a civil unions bill yesterday, and when the governor signs the legislation as expected, it will be the third state after Vermont and Connecticut to afford to gay couples the rights and responsibilities of marriage — albeit via a separate institution. 

    The New Jersey Supreme Court had given the legislature 180 days to ex tend to gay couples the same rights and responsibilities as straight married couples have, although it was left to lawmakers to decide whether to open up marriage or create a separate institution by another name.  With almost no debate and less than one-third of the way to their deadline, legislators opted for civil unions rather than marriage. 

    The civil unions bill passed easily, by 56-19 in the House and 23-12 in the Senate, with five abstaining in both bodies.  Gov. Jon Corzine (D) is a long-time supporter of civil unions and said he would sign the bill into law.

    Even though the glass in New Jersey is at least three-quarters full, some nonetheless focused on the remaining one-fourth to go.  "Although same-sex couples in New Jersey are better off today than
    yesterday, they are still not equal to other couples," David Buckel of Lambda Legal said in a statement yesterday. "Their relationships will likely continue to be disrespected. By passing a law that marks
    same-sex couples as inferior, the government has paved the way for others to discriminate against them."

    Buckel makes a fair point that separate institutions are inherently equal, as our nation learned with segregated schools, but let's hope he does not carry through on his threat to take the matter back to the courts.  Buckel and Lambda Legal represented the gay couples who brought the New Jersey marriage suit, and since the ruling they have staked their hopes on a line from the court's opinion leaving open the possibility that legislation that falls short of marriage could also fail to satisfy the court. 

    But with so much in the majority opinion making clear that "separate but equal" civil unions are constitutional, it's next to impossible to imagine (barring a change in the court's membership) that the justices would reverse course now.  Nor would it be the best thing for gay couples, especially those not so lucky as to live in New Jersey. 

    Gays successfully lobbied the state's legislature and then-closeted former Gov. James McGreevey to adopt domestic partnership legislation, and the Supreme Court carried the ball forward to civil unions.  "The distance between nothing and civil unions is greater than the distance between civil unions and marriage," said Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-Princeton), the state's only openly gay lawmaker.

    In the interest of long-term success and reducing the likelihood of some push-back in the form of an anti-gay marriage amendment, gays in New Jersey should go back to the legislature to get from civil unions to marriage.  Not because the state's constitution doesn't guarantee marriage rights — it should — but to protect that same constitution and others like it from the backlash we've seen elsewhere.

    Full marriage already has the backing of the five top leaders in both the House and the Senate, and even Governor Corzine makes the next step sound inevitable, saying that for now it was important not "to get so far out in front of the public."

    Massachusetts will remain for now the only state to marry gay couples, while California offers same-sex domestic partnerships that fall just short of civil unions. The District of Columbia permits gay and straight couples, as well as some blood relatives, to enter into domestic partnerships that also come close to civil unions, while Hawaii and many local governments offer domestic partnerships with a greatly reduced set of rights and responsibilities.

    New Jersey lawmakers even went one step further than their counterparts in Vermont and Connecticut, beating back "poison pill" legislation that declared marriage is limited to "one man and one woman." The new civil unions bill also sets up a commission that will investigate whether keeping gay couples from marrying subjects them to unequal treatment.  That commission will likely provide the impetus to reconsider full marriage in a year or two.

    It's clear who has the better side of the argument this week.  Republican Assemblyman Ronald Dancer of Ocean, N.J., admitted his vote was dictated by his private religious faith, saying, "I cannot compromise my religious beliefs and faith. Let marriage be known by no other name, nor let marriage ever be redefined."  So much for the U.S. Constitution's prohibition on the establishment of a religion.

    "We're not taking away anyone's rights," echoed Sen. Robert Singer (R-Jackson), "just sanctifying what marriage is."  Since when is it the job of the New Jersey state legislature, or politicians generally, to "sanctify" anything?

    If gay rights activists can accept incremental progress like that achieved yesterday in New Jersey — on the same day the state became the ninth to adopt a transgender bias bill — while continuing the push forward, the happy ending is inevitable — it's only a matter of time.



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    1. Alan on Dec 15, 2006 12:58:01 PM:

      [Comment from an unhappily single middle-aged gay man]

      Let me see if I understand this correctly. A governmental agency is willing to provide all of the legal rights and responsibilties of marriage to a civil union. Several religions are willing to perform commitment ceremonies and "sanctify' those unions in the so-called "eyes of God and man."

      And other than semantically this differs from marriage how?

      Get this status in the other 47 states and then complain about "naming" it marriage. There's too much to get done to waste time on semantics.

    1. Andoni on Dec 15, 2006 8:40:33 PM:

      Bravo, New Jersey!

      I was a bit worried and disappointed when civil unions, not marriage became the consensus so quickly in NJ. However, there really appears to be an intelligent game plan here. Any bill passed by the state legislature within the first 180 days following the Supreme Court decision could and would have been labeled by our opponents as the product of “judicial activism.”.

      However, if some time passes and the legislature entirely of its (and the peoples’) own volition decides to pass marriage equality, that would be a profound statement and could not be demeaned as “judicial activism.”

      In my mind there is nothing wrong with “judicial activism” when it defends minorities over the tyranny of majorities, but the term has been hijacked and so mis-defined and poisoned by the religious right, that people simply don’t understand the principles of judicial activism.

      I like the way the LGBT community has operated in NJ. I hope other LGBT state organizations send emissaries to NJ to learn the successful tactics and import them to their home states.

    1. Becky Juro on Dec 16, 2006 2:50:09 AM:


      You have it exactly right. The level of cooperation between all of our activist organizations in this state is absolutely amazing. It's my belief that it's because our activist community is able to reach out, form coalitions, and work together in concert for the good of all of us, that we also all succeeded together.

      It may sound simple, but obviously, it works.

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