On Wednesday, Lambda Legal filed a lawsuit seeking marriage equality in New Jersey on behalf of seven gay and lesbian couples and Garden State Equality, New Jersey's statewide LGBT-advocacy organization.
The lawsuit comes less than a week after Governor Andrew M. Cuomo signed a bill legalizing marriage for gay and lesbian couples in New York. When the law takes effect on July 24, New York will become the sixth - and largest - state to legally allow marriage for loving and committed gay and lesbian couples. (Connecticut, Massachusetts, Iowa, New Hampshire, Vermont and the District of Columbia also have marriage equality.)
"The constitutional guarantee of equality under the law does not stop midway through the Lincoln Tunnel," said Lambda Legal Deputy Legal Director Hayley Gorenberg in a press release on Wednesday.
In late 2006, the New Jersey Supreme Court ordered the state to extend to gay and lesbian couples the same legal protections that married couples receive. Lawmakers thus enacted a civil union law, but "Garden State Equality [GSE] has received reports from a multitude of civil union couples who have told us their employers refuse to provide the equal rights and benefits the civil union law mandates," said GSE Executive Director Steven Goldstein.
Gorenberg says that the state's civil union law has failed gay and lesbian couples in several other ways.
"Our clients have been kept from each other during medical crises, denied health insurance and even discriminated against in funeral homes because their civil unions relegate them to second-class status," said Gorenberg. "New Jersey's same-sex couples have been stuck in a limbo caused by the confusion and indignity of living with an inferior status."
Case in point are Elena Quinones, her partner, Liz, and their son, Ian. Elena gave birth to Ian two years ago, and the couple spent about $10,000 so that Liz could formally adopt him. Despite traveling with Ian's birth certificate, their civil union certificate and other documents that prove their relationship, the couple still encounters obstacles in places like doctors' offices.
"We're still forced to justify ourselves," Elena said in an interview with The Associated Press. If she and Liz were able to marry, rather than obtain a civil union, Elena says those problems would be gone.
"When you say you're married, it's universal," said Elena. "You say 'civil union,' it's like you're speaking another language."
In 2009, Garden State Equality and other advocates mounted a major effort to pass marriage equality legislation before Gov. Chris Christie (R) was sworn into office, replacing Democrat Gov. Jon Corzine. Ultimately, despite a Democrat-controlled legislature, the legislation did not obtain the votes needed to pass. Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) opposed the legislation in 2009, but just last week called that decision "the biggest mistake of my legislative career."
Goldstein now says there are enough votes to pass marriage equality legislation in both houses of the New Jersey legislature, but he is less certain that there are enough votes to override a veto by Gov. Christie, who as recently as Tuesday voiced his opposition to marriage equality in New Jersey.
“It means we’ll have to win marriage equality in New Jersey through another means,” said Goldstein following Sen. Sweeney's acknowledgement on the floor of the State senate.
“Stay tuned for an announcement very, very soon," Goldstein said at the time.
And now the announcement has come.
GLAAD hopes that New Jersey will soon join its neighbors to the north as the next state to equally recognize the love and commitment of all couples. This will become reality only when all couples are able to legally marry. Until that time comes, GLAAD urges the media to shine a spotlight on the stories of gay and lesbian couples, like Elena & Liz, for whom civil unions just aren't enough. It's also the media's responsibility to underscore why civil unions fall short in New Jersey. GLAAD will be keeping a close eye on this lawsuit and the related media coverage as it progresses.