NJ Supreme Court Grants Full Rights to Same-Sex Couples

October 25, 2006 (PLANSPONSOR.com) - New Jersey's highest court ruled Wednesday that the Garden State can no longer deny to same-sex couples the full legal benefits of marriage now afforded to heterosexual couples.

However, the state Supreme Court stopped just short of mandating same-sex marriages – ordering instead that  New Jersey lawmakers must decide within six months whether to change the state’s marriage laws or to “enact an   appropriate statutory structure” other than traditional “marriage” that still grants same-sex couples identical legal rights.

Associate Justice Barry Albin, writing for a four to three court majority, said the jurists were reluctant to step too far into deciding how to implement Wednesday’s order.

“When such change (to state marriage laws) is not compelled by a constitutional imperative, it must come about through civil dialogue and reasoned discourse, and the considered judgment of the people in whom we place ultimate trust in our republican form of government,” Albin wrote. “Now the Legislature must determine whether to alter the long accepted definition of marriage. The great engine for social change in this country has always been the democratic process. Although courts can ensure equal treatment, they cannot guarantee social acceptance, which must come through the evolving ethos of a maturing society. Plaintiffs’ quest does not end here. Their next appeal must be to their fellow citizens whose voices are heard through their popularly elected representatives.”

Couples Free to Name their Relationship

Regardless of what lawmakers ultimately decide to call the rights granted to same-sex couples, however, Albin said the court was ordering that “same-sex couples will be free to call their relationships by the name they choose and to sanctify their relationships in religious ceremonies in houses of worship.”

Seven gay and lesbian couples sued in 2002, arguing they should be allowed to marry under the state constitution. State law bars discrimination based on sexual orientation. A state Superior Court judge ruled against gay marriage in 2003, and a divided appeals court affirmed that decision last year. 

According to a Gannett News Service report, social conservatives have vowed to press lawmakers to amend the New Jersey Constitution to bar such marriages, as 19 states have done and eight more may do next month. Governor Jon Corzine has said he would not support such an amendment.

Massachusetts is the only state that allows gay couples to marry, though couples from states that don’t recognize such unions aren’t eligible (See Massachusetts Court Says Gays Entitled to Marry ).

Nearly all states have adopted laws or constitutional amendments barring gay marriage. The only states without one or both are Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey , New Mexico , New York and Rhode Island , according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. New Jersey is one of several states that recognize domestic partnerships between unmarried people, which afford limited rights and benefits ( McGreevey Pens Garden State Same-Sex Partner Bill ); Vermont and Connecticut  (See Employers Not Prepared for CT Civil Union Law ) authorize civil unions, which afford more legal protections.

The ruling is  here .