New Jersey’s Civil Union Law Challenged by Rights Group

New Jersey’s civil union law was challenged by Lambda Legal, a national gay rights advocacy group, which said it sued over claims the statute violates both the state and federal constitutions.

The statute “singles out” lesbians and gay men for “inferior treatment” on the basis of their sexual orientation, according to the complaint filed on behalf of Garden State Equality and seven same-sex couples. Bloomberg News obtained a copy of the complaint filed today in state court in Trenton, New Jersey, from Lambda Legal.

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

The complaint follows New York’s June 24 decision to allow gay couples the right to wed. New York became the sixth U.S. state to legalize same-sex marriage after the Republican-controlled Senate approved the measure in a 33-29 vote.

New Jersey’s Senate rejected a gay marriage bill backed by then-Governor Jon Corzine in January 2010. Current Governor Chris Christie has said he is “not a fan” of same-sex marriage and wouldn’t follow in New York’s footsteps.

‘Really Clear’

During his monthly radio call-in show last night on WKXW-FM in Ewing, New Jersey, Christie vowed to defend the state’s statute as it is now.

“I made my position really clear during the election, that I believe marriage is between one man and one woman, and should remain so, but that I am also in favor of strengthening civil unions and working with groups like Garden State Equality and others,” Christie said on the radio show.

“As long as they’re reasonable, I’ll be supportive of it,” he said. “I don’t want same-sex couples to be deprived of legal rights.”

Michael Drewniak, a spokesman for Christie, declined to comment today on Lambda Legal’s complaint.

New Jersey’s civil unions fall short and fail to give same-sex couples protections equal to those given to married people, Lambda Legal said in its statement.

‘Lack of Recognition’

Same-sex couples “face a persistent and widespread lack of recognition of their rights in civic and commercial dealings,” Lambda Legal said in its complaint. “Their separate status is a badge that requires that they reveal their sexual orientation whether they wish to or not.”

The state’s current civil union law doesn’t guarantee federal protection or equal treatment by insurance providers, hospitals and government and private-sector services often fail to recognize civil unions as a family or legal structure, according to the complaint.

At a news conference today in Trenton, Daniel Weiss, 46, a lawyer from Asbury Park, New Jersey, and one of the plaintiffs, said staff at a New York City hospital refused to allow him to make crucial decisions when his partner, John Grant, was struck by a car in October. As Grant’s brain pressure increased, the nearest relative made a four-hour journey from Delaware to sign paperwork for surgery.

‘Endure the Indignity’

“At the moment that we needed civil-union laws the most to provide equality, it failed for us miserably,” Weiss said. “Nobody should have to endure the indignity that we did, the failure to recognize our relationship, the lack of compassion that I received.”

Grant, who was controller of the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, is continuing to recover. The couple, who had a civil-union ceremony in 2009, married in Connecticut after the accident.

This is Lambda Legal’s second attempt to obtain marriage equality in the state. The group sued in 2002 on behalf of seven New Jersey couples. A state Supreme Court ruling in that case in 2006 led to the passage of New Jersey’s civil union law that same year. The state began issuing civil union licenses to lesbian and gay couples in February 2007, Lambda Legal said in its statement today.

Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Connecticut issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, as does the District of Columbia, according to the Washington-based Human Rights Campaign, which advocates equal rights for gay, bisexual and transgender people. New York and Maryland recognize such marriages from other jurisdictions.

The case is Garden State Equality v. Dow, Superior Court of New Jersey Law Division, Mercer County (Trenton).

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