In New Jersey’s Walk Down The Gay Marriage Aisle, It’s Close, But No Bouquet

Go down the Jersey shore to Atlantic City and try making a bet that New Jersey will legalize same-sex marriage in 2009. You may have trouble finding any takers. With a majority of New Jerseyers (Jerseyites? Jerseyians?) in support of gay marriage, a report last month from a state-appointed commission on civil unions saying that civil unions are not equal to marriage and the Governor saying he’ll sign a bill in support of gay marriage if it comes to his desk, there’s a very good chance we’ll be hearing gay wedding bells chime in the Garden State by year’s end.

Here’s how it happened:

January 12, 2004
The New Jersey legislature enacts The Domestic Partnership Act, which provides some, but not all, of the tangible benefits of marriage.

October 25, 2006
In Lewis vs. Harris, the Supreme Court of New Jersey finds that gay and lesbian couples are as equally protected as straight couples, with the court unable to find any public interest in denying equal protection to LGBT couples.

During the proceedings Chief Justice Deborah T. Poritz says to the defense:

“You say it over and over again, it is a historical fact, as Justice Long has pointed out, that marriage has been defined as between a man and a woman, but there are other historical facts that for a long time, women were property in the marriage relationship. For a long time, euhm(?), women could not make a claim of rape against a husband. There’ve been lots of ways in which the traditional idea of marriage and the relationship of marriage has changed, so why would we just simply defer. It’s historical. It’s over.”

In their summation, the justices write:

“In light of plaintiffs’ strong interest in rights and benefits comparable to those of married couples, the State has failed to show a public need for disparate treatment. We conclude that denying to committed same-sex couples the financial and social benefits and privileges given to their 57 married heterosexual counterparts bears no substantial relationship to a legitimate governmental purpose.”

The Court orders the New Jersey legislature to either amend current marriage laws or create civil unions.

December 14, 2006
New Jersey passes The Civil Unions Act, which gives all the rights conferred by marriage under New Jersey state law. Problems quickly become apparent, as some employers refuse to acknowledge the new partnerships and legal scholars argue that the law does not fulfill the Court’s mandate from the Lewis v. Harris case.

December 10, 2008
Within the Civil Unions Act was a provision requiring that civil unions in New Jersey be analyzed to see if they are effectively responding to the Court’s decision. The latest commission unanimously concludes that civil unions aren’t working and that the state must address the problem. As the Star-Ledger reported at the time:

“The final report of the New Jersey Civil Union Review Commission says it gathered “overwhelming evidence” the civil union law not only fails to provide the same protections as marriage, it also has created economic, medical and emotional hardships for gay couples.

The commission concluded denying same-sex couples the right to marry is as unjust as government imposing racial segregation laws against African-Americans. “

The commission unanimously recommends that the state legislature make all marriage laws gender neutral. Governor Corzine indicate he would sign the bill.

But the question remains if the legislature, whose members are up for election this year, will have the political courage to take up the issue. Caren Chesler writes in yesterday’s New York Times:

“Opponents of gay marriage have pledged to make it an issue in the 2009 election. Len Deo, president of the New Jersey Family Policy Council, said his organization believed that some New Jerseyans might support same-sex marriage but that a majority do not want to see marriage redefined in the process.

Some veteran political strategists say lawmakers are reluctant to have voters think they have taken their eyes off the state’s grave fiscal situation. With residents losing jobs and facing foreclosure and the prospect of higher property taxes, they do not want to appear sidetracked.

“There could be a backlash,” said Harold Hodes, a Democratic strategist. “There are other issues that are more pressing at this time.”

With the most recent polls showing 50 percent of New Jersey in support of equal marriage, and a clear call-to-action, politicians in Trenton may be the first to lose seats because they didn’t support marriage equality.