NJ Gay Couples Get Civil Unions
By Kavan Peterson, Staff Writer
The legislation was prompted by the New Jersey Supreme Court's Oct. 25 order that the state either legalize same-sex marriage or provide equal statutory treatment for gay couples by April 2007. New Jersey opted to follow the example of Vermont and Connecticut by adopting civil unions. Vermont adopted civil unions in 2000 after a legal decision similar to New Jersey's court ruling. Connecticut's Legislature voluntarily adopted civil unions in 2005.
Massachusetts remains the only state to legally sanction gay marriages as ordered by a landmark 2003 ruling from its highest court. Three more states - California, Connecticut and Maryland - may be pushed to decide how to handle recognition of gay couples next year because high court rulings on gay marriage are awaited in those states.
The authors of the New Jersey measure said they intend for civil unions to be identical to marriage in all but name. The legislation spells out specific benefits to be extended, such as full adoption rights and the right to change surnames without a court petition. It also updates state marriage statutes by painstakingly adding the phrase "or civil union" after every mention of "marriage" in more than 80 pages of rules governing nuptials.
But while a civil union license may carry the same weight as a marriage license within New Jersey, it's still short of marriage and doesn't satisfy gay rights groups. Gay rights advocates say it lacks societal recognition and is not legally recognized by other states or by federal law. Gay rights advocates in New Jersey acknowledged civil unions are a step forward but called them a second-class alternative to marriage.
"If you say, hey, I'm unionized, what does that mean? Everybody knows what marriage means, it's the only currency that's accepted, that everybody understands," said Barbra Casbar, president of New Jersey Stonewall Democrats, a pro-gay rights political group that had lobbied for full marriage rights.
New Jersey's high court ruled unanimously that same-sex couples deserved full access to the rights and privileges of marriage. However, four of the seven justices ruled that civil unions would be an acceptable alternative to marriage. State Democratic leaders quickly signaled they preferred the less controversial option of civil unions and approved the legislation with little debate only nine days after it was introduced.
"The public is accepting of the state of New Jersey allowing civil unions, but they're not yet accepting of using the word 'marriage' with regards to same-sex couples," former governor and Senate President Richard Codey (D), chief sponsor of the civil unions bill, told Stateline.org .
"In another 10 years that probably will change, and I fully expect the Legislature to address this issue again," he said.
Unlike civil union statutes adopted by Vermont and Connecticut that included language codifying marriage as a union for only a man and a woman, New Jersey lawmakers left out such a definition. The law also creates a task force to monitor implementation of civil unions to ensure the high court's demands are met.
However, several legal organizations criticized civil unions as insufficient to meet the requirements of the state Supreme Court's directive. The New Jersey State Bar Association said in a statement that civil unions "will create a separate, unequal and unnecessarily complex legal scheme."
More than half of the states have written bans on same-sex marriage into their state constitutions, to guard against state judges ordering them to legalize gay weddings. However, more states are expected to consider expanding gay rights in 2007 than to restrict them.
Gay rights advocates, emboldened by the unprecedented defeat of a constitutional same-sex marriage ban in Arizona on Election Day, hope that Democratic gains at the state level will translate into an expansion of gay partnership rights and a slowdown in the number of states adopting constitutional bans on gay marriage.
Seven states adopted same-sex marriage bans on Nov. 7 — bringing the total to 27 states nationwide — but gay rights advocates claimed a major breakthrough when Arizona voters became the first to reject such a measure at the ballot box — 52 percent to 48 percent.
Gay rights advocates see progress in the Election Day results, even though all but one ban passed. In 2004, 13 state constitutional same-sex marriage bans passed with 71 percent support, compared to 56 percent support this year. South Dakota voters approved a ban by a surprisingly narrow margin of 52 percent to 48 percent margin.
Observers said the campaign against the same-sex marriage amendment in Arizona, Proposition 107, was successful because it avoided almost any mention of gay marriage. Instead, millions of dollars of advertising focused on the section of the measure that would have banned government agencies from recognizing civil unions or domestic partnerships between heterosexual partners. The campaign may have resonated strongly among the state's large population of senior citizens, many of whom may avoid new marriages because their retirement incomes may be affected.
Bills to expand same-sex partnership rights, ranging from full marriage to domestic partnerships to civil unions, are expected in California, Connecticut, Maryland, Oregon, New York and Washington. High courts in New York and Washington in July upheld their states' same-sex marriage bans but recommended that state lawmakers address the issue of rights for gay couples.
Currently, partnership rights for same-sex couples differ widely in the seven states that recognize some form of gay unions. Besides marriage licenses in Massachusetts and civil unions in Connecticut, New Jersey and Vermont, domestic partnership registries have been created in three states: California, Hawaii and Maine. Domestic partnerships differ from civil unions in that they confer a specific list of benefits to registered couples who may be of the same-sex or opposite sex. For example, Maine and Hawaii list specific legal rights for domestic partners such as inheritance and hospital visitations. California's domestic partnership law is similar to civil unions in that it extends all state-level rights and responsibilities to registered domestic partners.
But the rush to write same-sex marriage bans into constitutions is slowing. In the 23 states that have not yet adopted constitutional amendments defining marriage as a union of one man and one woman, Democrats now control one or both legislative chambers in all but Florida. There, gay marriage foes are collecting signatures to put a same-sex marriage ban on the ballot.
Gay rights advocates say they have the votes to defeat any new same-sex marriage ban in each of these states accept possibly Indiana and Pennsylvania, where Democrats now hold just a one-vote margin in each state House. Indiana lawmakers took the first step in passing a same-sex marriage ban in 2005 but must vote on the proposal again in 2007 before sending it to voters. Democratic lawmakers said they have enough votes to delay passage of the proposed amendment. Pennsylvania lawmakers voted down a same-sex marriage ban in 2005 when Republicans controlled both chambers.
Proponents of same-sex marriage bans, such as the conservative family values group, Family Research Council (FRC), acknowledge that they face an uphill battle passing bans in the remaining states.
"We've gotten a lot of the low-hanging fruit and don't expect to see the same numbers of states (adopting constitutional same-sex marriage bans) we've seen in the last two years," said Tom McClusky, vice president of government affairs for the Washington, D.C.-based FRC.
Same-sex marriage foes in Florida are expected to collect more than 600,000 signatures needed to put a same-sex marriage ban on the 2008 ballot. But passage of the proposal may be in doubt.
Florida voters this year approved a ballot measure intended to make it more difficult to amend the state constitution in the future by requiring 60 percent approval by voters. Gay rights advocates also are looking to emulate the success in Arizona by launching a similar campaign targeted at Florida's senior-citizen population.
Florida is demographically and politically closer to Arizona than any other state, said Nadine Smith, executive director of Equality Florida, a gay rights group.
"Our polling has shown similar responses from people who are very concerned about the broad language of this proposal harming communities that already have domestic partnership protections," including Miami Beach, Monroe, Tampa Bay and Palm Beach, she said.