Amick: Marriage equality effort in political limbo

Posted by George Amick on

"Early in 2008, then-Speaker of the Assembly Joe Roberts optimistically proclaimed that marriage equality in his state "is simply a question of when, not if." The implication was that gay people in New Jersey soon would enjoy the equal rights that are afforded their counterparts in several other states.

"It's now clear that the 'when' could be years away.

"The prospects began unraveling in January, when the Democratic-controlled state Senate rejected a freedom to marry bill that outgoing Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine was ready and willing to sign into law. Corzine's successor, Republican Chris Christie, opposes marriage equality and will be in a position until 2014, and possibly 2018, to veto any new legislative attempt.

"That left only one option for the advocates of marriage equality: the New Jersey Supreme Court. Their chances there seemed promising -- until last week.

"Last week, the court turned down a motion from six gay couples asking that it revisit its unanimous 2006 ruling that gays were entitled to 'the full rights and benefits enjoyed by heterosexual married couples,' but could achieve them by other means than marriage. That ruling gave the Legislature a political escape hatch, which it quickly used by enacting a law establishing civil unions.

"In their new motion, the couples asked the court for full marriage rights, citing a legislative commission's report that civil-union couples and their adopted children face discrimination, stigma and unequal treatment with respect to health care, employment benefits, family-law protections and other legal and civic functions.

"Three justices were willing to hear the case, but the other three decided that the petitioners had to go back to square one and file their suit in Superior Court. In a Supreme Court that has six sitting justices and one vacant seat, a tie vote was enough to deny the request.

"'This matter cannot be decided without the development of an appropriate trial-like record,' the court said.

"All of which has given Gov. Christie an additional trump card with which to defeat the freedom to marry.

"It took four years for the first lawsuit -- which, like the new one, was backed and funded by gay-rights organizations -- to work its way through the court system and be decided by the Supreme Court in 2006. It could take equally long for the new petition to finally reach the justices' desks.

"And time is on Christie's side. Christie, in his announced crusade to change the Supreme Court's "'ctivist' ways, already has forced out one of the justices who decided the 2006 case, John Wallace, by not renominating him to a tenured term when his seven-year initial term ended in May.

... "Given enough time, Joe Roberts' 'when, not if' observation will turn out to be accurate, even in New Jersey. The people who would forbid the freedom to marry, like those who once forbade interracial marriage, are on the wrong side of history.

"But that's small comfort to committed gay couples today who endure the denial of the rights that heterosexual couples take for granted."

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