The New Jersey Supreme Court decided that same-sex couples should have the same marriage rights as opposite-sex couples in a 4-3 decision on Wednesday, Oct. 25.
However, the union may not necessarily be called “marriage.” That matter is now in the hands of the New Jersey State Legislature, which has the responsibility of creating a statute providing full rights and benefits to same-sex couples within the next six months. This decision was in accordance with the majority opinion of the judges.
However, the minority opinion, written by three of the seven judges, was that the court should have decided not only to legalize same-sex unions, but also to use the term “marriage” in defining them.
“Our decision today significantly advances the civil rights of gays and lesbians,” Justice Barry Albin said in the majority opinion. “We have decided that our state constitution guarantees that every statutory right and benefit conferred to heterosexual couples through civil marriage must be made available to committed same-sex couples. Now the Legislature must determine whether to alter the long accepted definition of marriage.”
“I think ‘separate, but equal’ is a bunch of shit,” Noel Ramirez, president of PRISM, said, alluding to the Jim Crow Laws and the black civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s.
Jay Lassiter, a 34-year-old resident of Cherry Hill, drew the same parallel: “(Marriage is) a basic civil right; riding in the back of the bus sucks.”
Michael Behrens, attorney for the New Jersey Family Policy Council and the New Jersey Catholic Conference, believes that the State Legislature will adhere to the Supreme Court’s ruling.
However, Behrens also warned that the court’s ruling alone did not mean that same-sex couples would immediately be able to get married.
“(The) plaintiff’s quest does not end here,” Albin said in his opinion, which was shared by the majority of the court. “(The GLBT community’s) next appeal must be to their fellow citizens whose voices are heard through their popularly elected representatives.”
A large, overwhelmingly pro-equal marriage rights crowd, along with several news vans, gathered outside the Richard J. Hughes Justice Complex in Trenton where the justices made their decision. Among the media present was Reuters news service, NBC News and The New York Times.
PRISM, the College’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) club, formed a large part of a crowd of about 75, sporting rainbow flags and leading chants, including a “TCNJ! Pride!” chant.
Garden State Equality, a GLBT organization, gave supporters posters that said, “New Jersey supports marriage equality. We’re the state that doesn’t hate.”
PRISM members led a chant as the decision drew nearer, saying, “What do we want? Equality! When do we want it? Now!”
“They were talking, they were screaming, they were chanting,” Ramirez said. “It really shows support. It shows that we’re not apathetic losers and that we do really care.”
Ramirez carried a poster saying, “Equalize love.”
General reactions to the decision were mixed.
“My partner and I have been together 24 years,” Gerry Parchman, a 68-year-old retiree from Riverton, said. “We’re treated like second class citizens.”
“Not calling it what it is is still an illustration of homophobia that exists institutionally,” Ramirez said, referring to the Court’s decision to allow the Legislature to name same-sex unions something other than “marriage.”
“We must not underestimate the power of language,” Chief Justice Deborah Poritz, in her minority opinion, said. “Labels set people apart as surely as physical separation on a bus or in school facilities. Labels are used to perpetuate prejudice about differences that, in this case, are embedded in the law.”
Albin defended the majority decision. “If the Legislature creates a separate statutory structure for same-sex couples by a name other than marriage, it probably will state its purpose and reasons for enacting such legislation,” he said.
“The Legislature is free to break from the historical traditions that have limited the definition of marriage to heterosexual couples or to frame a civil-union-style structure,” Albin said.
Nancy Hillman of the Trenton Gay and Lesbian Association was more upbeat about the Court’s decision. “I’m going diamond shopping,” she said. “Thank you New Jersey. Whatever wording they come up with, it’s absolutely a victory.”
“As a lesbian, this is my entire future,” Julie Bergman, sophomore secondary education/English major, said.
If passed by the Legislature, New Jersey would be the third state with a statute allowing civil unions to afford same-sex couples all the same rights as opposite-sex couples, along with Vermont and Connecticut. If the Legislature opts to change the definition of marriage to include same-sex couples, New Jersey will be only the second state after Massachusetts to do so.
“If (the Legislature) approves gay marriage I’m going to be going to a lot of weddings,” Patricia DeCandia, a sophomore at Drew University who was there with the school’s GLBT Pride Alliance, said.
“Perhaps the political branches will right the wrong presented in this case by amending the marriage statutes to recognize fully the fundamental right of same-sex couples to marry,” Poritz said.
“We made a lot of noise and today’s an illustration of that, but I think, clearly, the result is an illustration of how much further we have to fight,” Ramirez said.
Despite this, Lassiter said that the court’s decision will have a profound effect on the GLBT community. “Obviously my gay brothers and sisters and my friends will be affected most profoundly,” he said, “but we’re all on the bus together.”