Ruling changes landscape for pursuit of gay marriage in N.J.

 American University students Sharon Burk, left, and Molly Wagner, embrace outside the Supreme Court after Wednesday DOMA ruling.  (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

American University students Sharon Burk, left, and Molly Wagner, embrace outside the Supreme Court after Wednesday DOMA ruling. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Supporters of gay marriage in New Jersey see the Supreme Court’s ruling on DOMA as a huge boost for political and legal efforts to move beyond civil unions in the state.

“Today is a game-changing moment for New Jersey,” said Udi Ofer, the Executive Director of New Jersey’s American Civil Liberties Union.

In New Jersey, same-sex couples can enter into civil unions but are not eligible to marry. The Supreme Court’s decision today will extend federal marriage benefits to legally married same-sex couples, but not to civil union partners.

“With DOMA being struck down, the term ‘civil union’ will prevent New Jersey couples from being eligible for hundreds of federal benefits,” Ofer said.

“With today’s decision, New Jersey can no longer hide behind the federal government to justify its own discrimination.”

Legal confusion

The complexity of the new legal landscape is already causing confusion.

This morning, Penny DeJesus arrived at Giovanni’s room, an LGBT bookstore in Philadelphia, to purchase a new rainbow flag. After the decision came down, she had called her partner of nine years. Both Pennsylvania residents, they entered into a civil union in New Jersey.

“I said, ‘Congratulations we’re legal everywhere now.’ And she was very proud,” DeJesus said.

In fact, Sally Goldfarb, a professor at Rutgers School of Law – Camden, said that civil union partners will see no change. Moreover, it’s not clear what impacts the ruling will have for same-sex couples living in New Jersey with marriage certificates from other states. According to Goldfarb, in the past, the New Jersey government has viewed same-sex couples married out-of-state as civil union partners.

Although many federal agencies look to where the couple got married, others only consider where a couple lives to determine if a marriage is valid for federal purposes, others.

“I think we have to see how this pans out,” Goldfarb said.

Troy Stevenson, Executive Director of the gay rights group Garden State Equality, said that when his office first learned about the DOMA ruling, “We were excited and ecstatic and it was a truly transformational moment. But my honest reaction was to stare at the TV and turn to my lawyer and say, ‘What does this mean?’ That’s the question that I think everybody in New Jersey is asking.”

The debate continues

Even as gay marriage supporters are celebrating the court’s DOMA decision, Len Deo, President of the New Jersey Family Policy Council said that in New Jersey, “The debate continues.”

“Our stance is that the civil unions are adequate,” Deo said. When it comes to federal marriage rights, it should be up to the federal government to decide whether to grant those rights to couples in civil unions, according to Deo.

“Case closed. Marriage remains the union of a man and a woman.”

“I think that we need to hear from the governor first,” said N.J. Senate Majority leader Loretta Weinberg, who has been trying to drum up legislative support to override Gov. Chris Christie’s veto on a 2012 bill that would have legalized same-sex marriage in the state.

Christie, who is seen as a likely presidential candidate, has said voters in New Jersey should decide the issue.

Weinberg hopes that the Supreme Court’s decision will push Christie and legislators on the other side of the aisle to change their stance on gay marriage.

“Unless we grant the word marriage to all of our civil union couples and their families, they will be unequal unto the law,” Weinberg said, “and I believe that the governor and members of the legislature are not going to want that to happen.”

The battle in the courts

Civil unions in Jersey were the result of a 2002, New Jersey high court ruling that mandated same-sex couples be provided all the benefits and responsibilities of marriage. The ruling allowed the state legislature to decide whether to grant same-sex couples marriage or an alternate system that would provide equality

Immediately after today’s ruling on DOMA, Lambda Legal asked New Jersey courts to accelerate a second lawsuit filed in 2011 holding that civil unions do not meet the requirements of the state constitution.

According to Hailey Gorenberg, Lambda’s Deputy Legal Director, the Supreme Court’s decision on DOMA strengthens the case that civil unions deny same-sex couples the equality they were promised in New Jersey.

“We are seeking to go before the court to inject this new legal development—this new matter of law—into our case and move it forward quickly,” said Gorenberg.

“We think that the Supreme Court’s decision makes it clear on the law without further discovery that New Jersey isn’t providing equal rights.”

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