Lambda Legal and Garden State Equality filed a lawsuit today that could be the final nail in the coffin of civil unions as a “separate but equal” mechanism for recognizing same-sex relationships. Filed on behalf of seven same-sex families whose civil unions “relegate them to second-class status,” the suit argues that civil unions violate both the New Jersey Constitution and the 14th Amendment of the federal Constitution.
In October 2006, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled in Lewis v. Harris that “the unequal dispensation of rights and benefits to committed same-sex partners can no longer be tolerated under our state constitution.” The court did not mandate marriage as the solution, but gave the the legislature 180 days to rectify the inequality. That December, the state passed a law establishing civil unions and also created the New Jersey Civil Union Review Commission, which was charged with evaluating the implementation of civil unions to see how they measured up to marriage for same-sex couples.
After eighteen public meetings, 26 hours of oral testimony and hundreds of pages of written submission from more than 150 witnesses, this Commission finds that the separate categorization established by the Civil Union Act invites and encourages unequal treatment of same-sex couples and their children. In a number of cases, the negative effect of the Civil Union Act on the physical and mental health of same-sex couples and their children is striking, largely because a number of employers and hospitals do not recognize the rights and benefits of marriage for civil union couples.
Despite the Commission’s report, civil unions persist in New Jersey. The legislature attempted to pass marriage equality in January of 2010, but the measure failed. Gov. Chris Christie (R) made it clear this weekend that he would not sign a marriage equality bill into law.
In an interview yesterday, New York state Sen. Steven Saland (R) — who was one of the swing votes to help pass marriage equality last week — shared that the New Jersey commission’s report greatly influenced his understanding that civil unions did not measure up to marriage.