CommunityPam's House Blend

Equality comes to the Garden State

I’m finally back in town after 3 days in NYC and 3 more in NJ at a business conference.

When I took off from Newark Airport this afternoon, I left a state that has been profoundly changed by today’s ruling by the State Supreme Court. Taxpaying, law-abiding gay couples in the Garden State are entitled to the same rights and responsibilities as heterosexual couples, and the legislature has 180 days to define and authorize a civil equivalent. From the court’s ruling (PDF, Word):

Denying committed same-sex couples the financial and social benefits and privileges given to their married heterosexual counterparts bears no substantial relationship to a legitimate governmental purpose. The Court holds that under the equal protection guarantee of Article I, Paragraph 1 of the New Jersey Constitution, committed 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 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.

…Times and attitudes have changed. There has been a developing understanding that discrimination against gays and lesbians is no longer acceptable in this State. On the federal level, the United States Supreme Court has struck down laws that have unconstitutionally targeted gays and lesbians for disparate treatment. Although plaintiffs rely on the federal cases to support the argument that they have a fundamental right to marry under our State Constitution, those cases fall far short of establishing a fundamental right to same-sex marriage “deeply rooted in the traditions, history, and conscience of the people of this State.” Despite the rich diversity of this State, the tolerance and goodness of its people, and the many recent advances made by gays and lesbians toward achieving social acceptance and equality under the law, the Court cannot find that the right to same-sex marriage is a fundamental right under our constitution.

The judges in this case may have split hairs over the word “marriage,” but in doing so provide a ruling that goes out of its way to define fairness and equality under the law, which is the crux of this battle, which has often been muddied in blather over tradition, religions, procreation and all sorts of matters that are irrelevant to whether discrimination is occurring (see the NY decision on this for insanity over). Again, from the ruling:

The State does not argue that limiting marriage to the union of a man and a woman is needed to encourage procreation or to create the optimal living environment for children. Other than sustaining the traditional definition of marriage, which is not implicated in this discussion, the State has not articulated any legitimate public need for depriving committed same-sex couples of the host of benefits and privileges that are afforded to married heterosexual couples. There is, on the one hand, no rational basis for giving gays and lesbians full civil rights as individuals while, on the other hand, giving them an incomplete set of rights when they enter into committed same-sex relationships. To the extent that families are strengthened by encouraging monogamous relationships, whether heterosexual or homosexual, the Court cannot discern a public need that would justify the legal disabilities that now afflict same-sex domestic partnerships.

This is a legal slam dunk as far as I am concerned. You can argue over whether the timing of this ruling is a net positive or negative in terms of its impact on elections, but the reasoning is clear, and forces a debate about fairness under the law for gay and lesbian taxpaying citizens and their partnership rights. It takes matters out of the realm of the homo straw man destroying religious marriage or past traditions — as the ruling states — times and attitudes have changed.

The flat earth fundamentalists seek to wind the clock back, while the state of New Jersey is ready to accept the reality that its gay citizens do deserve civil equality. The bible beaters can bleat about activist judges all day long, but this ruling cuts these fundies off at the knees because the legislature (meaning the people’s representatives) will now be in the position to authorize marriage equality.

We have to acknowledge the fact that this ruling is flawed because civil rights should never be granted or denied by “the people.” The fact that New Jersey is a state with a legislature ready to grant those rights is a giant step forward, but it doesn’t resolve the ongoing conflict with the cultural knuckledraggers that will, in the end, land at the doorstep of the U.S. Supreme Court because of the patchwork of laws at the state level.

What we must always point to is civil fairness and equality — make the Right try to counter this, put them on the defensive. After all, their Dear Leader, the Chimperor himself, said that he believes in civil unions (back in 2004):

In an interview on Sunday with Charles Gibson, an anchor of “Good Morning America” on ABC, Mr. Bush said, “I don’t think we should deny people rights to a civil union, a legal arrangement, if that’s what a state chooses to do so.” ABC, which broadcast part of the interview on Monday, is to broadcast the part about civil unions on Tuesday.

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According to an ABC transcript, Mr. Gibson then noted to Mr. Bush that the Republican Party platform opposed civil unions. “Well, I don’t,” Mr. Bush replied.

He added: “I view the definition of marriage different from legal arrangements that enable people to have rights. And I strongly believe that marriage ought to be defined as between a union between a man and a woman. Now, having said that, states ought to be able to have the right to pass laws that enable people to be able to have rights like others.”

How are they going to square their demi-god’s opinion with the NJ ruling — it’s the same damn position.

While we can beat the fundies with this one, it’s noteworthy that this ruling presents the national Democratic leadership with the perfect opportunity to reframe the debate, to reclaim the perceived high ground, and to take their heads out of the sand. Will they take advantage, or run and hide, as usual?

Also, we have to continue educating people that successes at the state level do not address the over 1000 federal benefits that convey with marriage, thanks to Clinton’s Defense of Marriage Act. While on the road I encountered more progressive het folks who simply don’t have this issue on their radar, and have no idea where marriage is legal (or not), or what state amendments like Virginia’s mean, if they pass, to the legal rights of gay and lesbian families.

Over at BlueJersey.net, we have breaking news that legislation is already being proposed to address the issue in that 180-day timetable.

Assembly Speaker Pro Tem Wilfredo Caraballo, Assemblyman Brian Stack and Assemblyman Reed Gusciora plan to immediately introduce a bill to provide for full marriage equality.

Garden State Equality also says that it will begin airing a television commercial starring the late police officer Lt. Laurel Hester, taped shortly before her passing, to continue garnering support as this legislation moves forward. It will air every day and run for several weeks (it’s here). GSE also notes that polls show New Jersey favors marriage equality 56-39 percent (Zogby-Garden State Equality Poll).

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Ah, I see Daddy Dobson wasted no time; the Focus on the Anus clown is foaming at the mouth.

“The New Jersey Supreme Court has blatantly and arrogantly ordered the state Legislature to rip up what marriage has meant for thousands of years. The justices have made clear their disdain and disrespect for the true decision makers in our democracy — the people — as well as for the institution of marriage.

“This ruling once again highlights the need for voters to enact state marriage-protection amendments to keep marriage out of the hands of activist courts. We only hope that the residents of the eight states who will vote on such amendments Nov. 7 recognize that their state may be only one court ruling away from being forced to accept gay marriage – just as we’ve seen in Massachusetts and New Jersey. Nothing less than the future of the American family hangs in the balance if we allow one-man, one- woman marriage to be redefined out of existence. And, make no mistake, that is precisely the outcome the New Jersey Supreme Court is aiming for with this decision.”

And lookee here, the Alliance for Marriage is wetting its diapers

“This marks the second state — after Vermont — where radical activist groups have convinced state court judges to hold a gun to the head of the legislature,” said Matt Daniels, president of the Alliance for Marriage. “The legislature will now be compelled to choose between two bullets — all under court order. Either they create so-called ‘gay marriage’ or they create a civil union scheme that is identical. Either way, the people of New Jersey lose the right to decide — freely and democratically — to choose the course that is best for them, their families and their children.”

“Given the continuous attacks upon marriage in courts across the country, AFM’s Marriage Protection Amendment is clearly the only hope for the American people to determine the future of marriage under our laws,” Daniels added.

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Angie Paccione (l) has a chance to unseat the unforgivable bigot Musgrave, sponsor of the Marriage Protection Act.

And I can’t leave this bit of business out — Colorado’s anti-gay bleating Marilyn Musgrave is still on her marriage amendment hobby horse, performing in a debate against challenger Angie Paccione (give generously). Marilyn has made it her top priority to get another Federal Marriage Amendment up for a vote. (365gay):

I think that’s the ideal environment for children to be raised,” Musgrave said, of opposite-sex marriage.

The remark got a smattering of applause but Paccione’s response was quick earning her wide clapping and several cheers.

You want to protect marriage, you know what’s a threat to marriage? Divorce is a threat to marriage,” she told the crowd of about 1,000

You know what else is a threat to marriage? Infidelity is a threat to marriage. Domestic violence is a threat to marriage. Losing your job is a threat to marriage. Marriage is not a threat to marriage. I support equality.”

This race is close: a poll of 600 likely voters in the district Paccione has a 45 to 42 lead. It also showed a slip in Musgrave’s approval ratings (it’s hard to believe anyone approves of this woman), a little more than a third of voters giving her favorable ratings.

Also see Blender (and NJ resident) Jay Lassiter’s post downthread.

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Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding