The New Jersey Supreme Court – in a 7-0 decision – has ruled that all rights and benefits of marriage must be accorded to same-sex couples in the state.
While three of the justices would have granted the status of marriage immediately to those couples, the majority referred the issue to the state legislature, giving it six months to either to amend the marriage statutes or to create another system awarding same-sex couples the rights and benefits enjoyed by heterosexual married couples.
The court held that:
Denying committed same-sex couples the financial and social benefits and privileges given to their married heterosexual counterparts bears no substantial relationship to a legitimate governmental purpose. The court holds that under the equal protection guarantee of Article I, Paragraph 1 of the New Jersey Constitution, committed same sex couples must be afforded on equal terms the same rights and benefits enjoyed by opposite-sex couples under the civil marriage statutes.
“New Jersey’s highest court has made history today,” said Scott Long, director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights Program at Human Rights Watch. “State legislators in New Jersey must remember that separate is never equal. They should refuse to offer anything less than full justice and equal access to marriage.”
Garden State Equality, an activist organisation campaigning for LGBT rights, announced that legislators would introduce a bill for full marriage equality immediately, and cited polls showing that a majority of New Jerseyans support equality. (A recent poll showed that a majority of New Jersey voters support marriage equality for same-sex couples by a margin of 56-39%.) Still, activists expect a hard-fought battle.
The case had been before New Jersey’s courts since 2002, when seven lesbian and gay couples filed suit asserting the state violated its own constitution by refusing to allow them to marry. In the interim, New Jersey passed a domestic-partnership law affording some rights to same-sex couples, but the plaintiffs persisted in suing for full equality.
New Jersey would be the second U.S. state to endorse full equality in civil marriage. Massachusetts’s highest court opened marriage to same-sex couples in 2003.
Lack of access to marriage imposes discriminatory and damaging burdens on same-sex partners, said Human Rights Watch. They may be denied shared health or employment benefits, protections against domestic violence, inheritance rights, the right to raise a child together, the right to make medical decisions for a sick partner or a partner’s child, and rights to equal tax benefits and joint insurance policies.
While the ruling only applies to the state of New Jersey, it is expected to reignite national debate over the issue in the United States. It could also lead to a renewed attempt to pass a constitutional amendment – supported by President Bush – to define marriage as only being possible between a man and a woman.
Global trends point toward marriage equality. Belgium, Canada, the Netherlands and Spain already recognise full equality in civil marriage for same-sex couples. South Africa’s Constitutional Court ruled in December 2005 that barring same-sex couples from the rights and responsibilities of marriage was unconstitutional.