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New Jersey couples sue for equal marriage rights

Marriage equality

By Adam Bink

After marriage equality legislation failed in the New Jersey legislature in 2009, Garden State Equality said they would go back to the courts along with Lambda Legal. The New Jersey Supreme Court, which originally ruled that legislators must provide either civil unions or marriage (they chose civil unions), declined to hear the case, which led to today’s events. From NJ.com:

A New Jersey gay rights organization, seven same-sex couples and several of their children say they will file a suit in state Superior Court today demanding the partnerships be recognized not as civil unions, but as marriages.

The lawsuit comes days after New York signed gay marriage into law, which will go into effect next month.

But in New Jersey, where Gov. Chris Christie has vowed to veto any gay marriage bill approved by the Legislature, the courts are the only realistic option for same-sex partners who hope to marry any time soon.

“Gov. Christie says no way will there be marriage equality in New Jersey,” said Steven Goldstein, chairman of Garden State Equality, a gay rights organization that is the lead plaintiff in the suit. “And we say no way are we going to listen to him.”

New Jersey allows civil unions for gay couples, and the state has automatically recognized same-sex marriages performed in other states or foreign countries as civil unions since 2007. Over the last year and half, the movement for gay marriage in New Jerey has suffered two major setbacks. In January, 2010 — weeks before Christie took office — the state Senate rejected a bill that would have legalized it.

Several Democrats either voted no or did not cast a vote. Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester), who did not cast a vote, recently said he should have voted yes and called it the “most embarrassing moment of my political career” in a radio call-in show.

Six months later, the state Supreme Court declined to hear the case, ruling that it needed to work its way through the trial courts. That led to today’s lawsuit.

The suit contends civil unions are a “badge of inferiority” for same-sex couples. Although civil unions are meant to grant the state’s 5,417 civil union couples the same rights as heterosexual married couples, the suit argues that is far from the case in practical terms.

“Today, New Jersey shunts lesbian and gay couples into the novel and inferior status of ‘civil union,’ while reserving civil marriage only for heterosexual couples,” it read.

The suit outlines how William Keith Heimann’s health insurance policy dropped his two children and his 25-year partner, Thomas Davidson, after a contractor conducting an audit “questioned whether they had adequate documentation of their relationship.” The lawsuit says it took months to reinstate the policy, even though Davidson and Heimann were in a civil union.

The suit also outlines Danny Weiss’s struggle to make health care treatment decisions for his civil union partner, John Grant, after Grant was struck by a car in New York City.

“Despite their civil union, doctors and hospital staff did not recognize their legal relationship,” the suit says. “Discussions with doctors and other hospital staff about what a civil union meant, and whether it was ‘like marriage,’ took place as John was suffering from a brain hemorrhage.”

Eventually, hospital staff summoned Grant’s sister in Delaware to help make decisions.

The report of the official New Jersey Civil Union Review Commission (found here, at the top) is something I use all the time when I meet people who don’t understand why civil unions — in terms of rights and being effective — aren’t “good enough.” Leaving aside respect and dignity, important people who need to recognize them — employers, hospital staff — simply don’t. Moreover, should DOMA be overturned, they don’t provide the federal benefits that marriage would. That’s why this lawsuit is so important.

Update: Over e-mail, a news release with some details:

GARDEN STATE EQUALITY V. DOW FILED TODAY

Trenton, June 29, 2011 — Today Garden State Equality and seven same-sex couples and their children, represented by Lambda Legal, filed a lawsuit seeking marriage equality in New Jersey.  Garden State Equality is the lead plaintiff in the case, captioned Garden State Equality et. al. v. Dow et. al.

The case combines both state and federal claims. It argues that the civil union law violates both the New Jersey Constitution and the Fourteenth Amendment of the federal Constitution.

“The constitutional guarantee of equality under the law does not stop midway through the Lincoln Tunnel,” said Hayley Gorenberg, Lambda Legal Deputy Legal Director. “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.  New Jersey’s same-sex couples have been stuck in a limbo caused by the confusion and indignity of living with an inferior status.”

“By now, everybody in New Jersey knows that civil unions don’t work,” said Steven Goldstein, Chair and CEO of Garden State Equality.  “Since civil unions became law in New Jersey, Garden State Equality has received reports from multitudes of civil union couples who have told us their employers refuse to provide the equal rights and benefits the civil union law mandates. It’s time for the courts to fix this mess and give full marriage equality to New Jersey’s same-sex couples and their children.”

In court papers filed today, Lambda Legal addressed how New Jersey’s civil unions fall short. Civil unions place same-sex couples in an inferior status to different-sex couples. Without full marriage equality, same-sex couples are denied workplace benefits and protections equal to those accorded to married people, and they are blocked from seeing their loved ones during medical emergencies.  The exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage deprives them and their children of  their dignity as a family and certainty in their legal rights and status to each other.

Plaintiffs:

Garden State Equality, New Jersey’s largest civil rights organization, is the lead plaintiff in the case.

The plaintiff couples include:  Daniel Weiss, 46, and John Grant, 46, of Asbury Park, who have been together for four years and were married in Connecticut in 2010 after John was hit by a car, shattering his skull, and hospital administrators failed to understand their civil union; Marsha Shapiro, 56, and Louise Walpin, 57, of Monmouth Junction, who have been together for 22 years and raised four children; Cindy Meneghin, 53, and Maureen Kilian, 53, of Butler, who were high school sweethearts and have been together for 36 years, raising two children; Tevonda and Erica Bradshaw, both 36, of North Plainfield, who have an infant son and have been together for more than four years; Marcye and Karen Nicholson-McFadden, 47 and 45 respectively, of Aberdeen, who have been together for 21 years and have two children; Keith Heimann, 53, and Tom Davidson, 49, of Shrewsbury, who will celebrate their 25th anniversary together in January, and have two daughters; Elena and Liz Quinones, 33 and 45 respectively, of Phillipsburg, who are raising four children and have been together for nine years.

Background:

In 2002, Lambda Legal filed a historic case, Lewis v. Harris seeking marriage equality on behalf of seven New Jersey couples. The case reached the New Jersey Supreme Court in 2006. The high court ruled unanimously that same-sex couples must be provided all the benefits and responsibilities of marriage, although it declined to mandate that marriage was specifically required, and gave the state legislature 180 days to provide equality. The legislature hastily passed a civil union law in December 2006, and began issuing civil union licenses to same-sex couples in February 2007.

In December 2008 the Civil Union Review Commission, appointed by the legislature pursuant to the Civil Union Act itself, issued its unanimous report documenting how civil unions fall short of providing the court-mandated equality for same-sex couples. In January 2010, days before the legislative session ended, the New Jersey Senate voted on and failed to pass a marriage equality law. On March 18, 2010, Lambda Legal filed a motion in aid of litigants’ rights asking the New Jersey Supreme Court to intercede and order marriage to secure compliance with its original mandate of equality for the Lewis v. Harris plaintiffs, but in July 2010, the New Jersey Supreme Court denied the motion, requiring further proceedings to develop a record in Superior Court.

Hayley Gorenberg, Deputy Legal Director, is handling this case for Lambda Legal. She is joined by co-counsel Lawrence S. Lustberg and Eileen Connor of Gibbons, PC.

17 Comments

  • 1. peterplumber  |  June 29, 2011 at 10:03 am

    Once upon a time, circa 2005, I worked in New Jersey. I had a domestic partner at that time, and NJ's law stated that if an employer extends health benefits to spouses of married couples, they have to extend the same benefits to domestic partners. When I tried to get my employer to extend health insurance to my partner, I was laid off "due to lack of work".
    I left New Jersey and got a new job in Philly. Conditions were no better there for same sex couples.

  • 2. Ann S.  |  June 29, 2011 at 10:15 am

    §

  • 3. Waxr  |  June 29, 2011 at 11:03 am

    Video: NJ Gov. Christie Says He Will Never Sign Gay Marriage Bill

    http://www.nomblog.com/10803/

  • 4. Bill S.  |  June 29, 2011 at 11:17 am

    What would a timeline look like on this? Hopefully not the 4-5 years it typically takes to get a case through the federal judiciary to the Supreme Court.

  • 5. Owen  |  June 29, 2011 at 12:07 pm

    Unfortunately, it looks like 4 years might be about right. Lewis v. Harris, the case that brought civil unions to the state, took 4 years to get settled by the state Supreme Court.

  • 6. Andrew_SEA  |  June 29, 2011 at 12:19 pm

    If you have not seen this – read about this. It has changed our legislative landscape here in Seattle to increase our rights as DP:

    http://www.formywife.info/

    From seeing this – I fully understand what Danny went through. Nobody – even Magpie – should have to go through that.

  • 7. seth from maryland  |  June 29, 2011 at 12:21 pm

    god, i hope not , maybie the state supreme court could take the case right off the bat

  • 8. Martha  |  June 29, 2011 at 12:36 pm

    At the age of fourteen I stepped into my self imposed closet. I had no idea what was happening to me. Sixty years later, after two failed marriages and raising five rather remarkable children, I stepped out of the closet as a lesbian. There was no one else involved. That spring Massachusetts law allowed gays and lesbians to marry. and I realized that up until that moment of time I had always been a First Class citizen, but at the instant I accepted the truth about myself, I had lost all my rights in this country, except for Massachusetts. Yet, I was the same person as I was the night before, nothing had changed.
    Six years later I know better. There was such a sense or relief, of freedom and my very senses were sharpened, sight, sound, smell. I was filled with joy. I've written a memoir over the last six years, exploring this wonderful experience and yes, it has a happy ending. If only I could share this with the Christies of this world. Keep up the good work!

  • 9. Ann S.  |  June 29, 2011 at 1:10 pm

    Thank you for sharing your story with us, Martha!

  • 10. Bill S.  |  June 29, 2011 at 2:36 pm

    They have already rejected that on a 3-3 vote. But perhaps this is a good thing. This way, a trial record can be established.

  • 11. LCH  |  June 29, 2011 at 3:49 pm

    After seeing Christie in several interviews about various subjects I find him to be a rude, defensive, hot-head who uses his religion and his image as a family man to hide his prejudices and mistakes. I wish the best of luck to everyone involved in this case.

    ♀♀=♂♂=♀♂=∑♡

  • 12. Chris in Lathrop  |  June 29, 2011 at 4:08 pm

    How long before someone finds Christie having his "luggage lifted"?

  • 13. karen in kalifornia  |  June 29, 2011 at 4:21 pm

    Just in….Rhode Island Senate passes Civil Union bill with extensive religious exemptions….all the apologizers say we have to start somewhere.

  • 14. Bill Albinger  |  June 29, 2011 at 9:03 pm

    My partner and I lived in NJ but moved to Massachusetts to get married. There are a lot of corporations headquartered in NJ. NJ is also home to Princeton and other major schools. Maybe when people won't come to work there, they'll wake up and see that the Church isn't helping their bottom line.

  • 15. Bryce  |  June 29, 2011 at 11:32 pm

    Do we have any of the filings?

  • 16. Ann S.  |  June 30, 2011 at 7:00 am

    Lambda Legal is representing the plaintiffs. There is a link on this page of their site (scroll down): http://www.lambdalegal.org/in-court/cases/garden-

    I haven't read it yet myself.

  • 17. elf  |  July 1, 2011 at 5:26 pm

    Full text of the filing at http://legaldocs.dreamwidth.org/2011/07/01/

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