Nation - New Jersey Gay marriage battle heading back to court Gay couples say state is not recognizing their full rights in civil unions

By Geoff Mulvihill

Associated Press Writer

HADDONFIELD, N.J. (AP) -- The gay couples who fell just short on their previous effort to persuade New Jersey courts to recognize gay marriage are asking the court again.

A lawyer for the group filed a motion Thursday arguing that the state has not fulfilled the court's 2006 order to treat committed same-sex couples the same way it treats married heterosexual couples.

The lawyer, Hayley Gorenberg of Lambda Legal, says that six of the seven couples who originally sued for equal treatment have registered for civil unions but have found that the government, hospitals, schools, employers and other institutions do not always recognize their full rights.

The six couples are asking the court to intervene. The seventh couple from the original suit is not part of the new motion because one of the plaintiffs has since died.

"There's no need for further legislative action," Gorenberg said. "All the court needs to do is order that the state stop discriminating."

Other actions the court could take include rejecting the motion, agreeing but requiring legislative action to legalize gay marriage, or appointing a special master to study the issue.

For most of the past decade, New Jersey has been one of the states at the vanguard of the battle over expanding recognition of gay relationships. It's one of a handful of states where social conservatives have not been able to amend the state constitution to ban the recognition.

In 2006, New Jersey's state Supreme Court ruled unanimously that gay couples deserved equal treatment. But they ruled by a 4-3 vote that the state did not have to recognize them as married. Instead, the court left details of their legal status up to the Legislature, which responded by making the state the third to offer civil unions.

The unions offer the name but not the title of marriage. Through January, 4,412 couples had registered.

Gay rights groups tried to get lawmakers to reconsider and recognize gay marriage, but the bill died after the state Senate voted it down in January. Supporters say they had the momentum until November, when Republican Chris Christie, who opposes gay marriage, was elected governor.

Advocates said they would return the issue to the courts. Thursday's filing fulfills that pledge.

They point to several changes since the court's ruling.

First, they say, civil unions have not done what they intended to do.

The state's Civil Union Review Commission -- a group opponents say was biased in favor of expanding gay rights -- found as much in a report in 2008.

Couples have reported hardships such as not being able to see their partners in the hospital and being denied health insurance for their partners.

Mark Lewis, namesake of the state Supreme Court case Lewis v. Harris, said that when he and partner Dennis Winslow entered into a civil union, it didn't feel like they were married. He said that's because it seemed like a bureaucratic formality.

"Nobody ever congratulated us on all civil union," he said. "We didn't get any civil union presents. No one congratulated us when we updates our wills, either."

Many say the different treatment -- some of it contrary to the civil union law -- comes largely because the unusual the law is hard to understand.

Len Deo, president of the New Jersey Family Policy Council, one of the state's leading opponents of gay marriage, said that civil unions are working well, despite what gay rights groups say. He said the state Civil Rights Commission has received only a dozen complaints about it in more than three years -- and all have been rectified.

"They started off in the courts. The courts gave a remedy. the remedy went to the legislature," said Deo. "Garden State Equality has done nothing since the enactment of the civil union law but try to discredit it."

But at a state Senate committee hearing in December, several opponents of gay marriage said civil unions were not working. But they said the right course is to repair them rather than allow gay marriage, which they say runs contrary to some religious beliefs.

Another change since 2006 is that gay marriage is more widely recognized. When the New Jersey Supreme Court acted, it was available in only Massachusetts. Only two other states -- Vermont and Connecticut -- had civil unions.

Now those states all recognize gay marriage, as do New Hampshire, Iowa and Washington, D.C.

Published: Fri, Mar 19, 2010