The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled in favor of equal rights for same-sex couples wishing to legalize their unions. However, it appears that the court will leave it to the “democratic process” to determine what New Jersey same-sex unions are called.
In a 4-3 decision in which the three dissenters were only partial dissenters (Justices Poritz, Zazzali, and Long filed a separate concurring and dissenting opinion in which they agreed that “the finding of the majority that denying the rights and benefits to committed same-sex couples that are statutorily given to their heterosexual counterparts violates the equal protection guarantee of Article I, Paragraph 1 of the New Jersey Constitution”) the Court ruled that same-sex couples “must be afforded on equal terms the same rights and benefits enjoyed by opposite-sex couples under the civil marriage statutes.”
The legislature has 180 days to amend the marriage statues or enact an appropriate statutory structure.
From the opinion:
“Only rights that are deeply rooted in the traditions, history, and conscience of the people are deemed to be fundamental. Although we cannot find that a fundamental right to same-sex marriage exists in this State, the unequal dispensation of rights and benefits to committed same-sex partners can no longer be tolerated under our State Constitution. With this State’s legislative and judicial commitment to eradicating sexual orientation discrimination as our backdrop, we now hold that denying rights and benefits to committed same-sex couples that are statutorily given to their heterosexual counterparts violates the equal protection guarantee of Article I, Paragraph 1. To comply with this constitutional mandate, the Legislature must either amend the marriage statutes to include same-sex couples or create a parallel statutory structure, which will provide for, on equal terms, the rights and benefits enjoyed and burdens and obligations borne by married couples. We will not presume that a separate statutory scheme, which uses a title other than marriage, contravenes equal protection principles, so long as the rights and benefits of civil marriage are made equally available to same-sex couples. The name to be given to the statutory scheme that provides full rights and benefits to same- sex couples, whether marriage or some other term, is a matter left to the democratic process.”
It will be interesting to see what kind of effect this has on the upcoming elections. Much of the division over gay couples gaining equal rights in this area comes over the word “marriage”. I think that by pushing the decision of what to call the same-sex union to the legislature, the Court has effectively blocked many of the arguments of those who would object to the decision purely on semantic terms.