On the heels of landmark legislation in New York that allows same-sex couples the right to marry, the fight for equal rights in this state will soon be heading to New Jersey's courts.
On Wednesday, New York law firm Lambda Legal filed a lawsuit in Superior Court of Mercer County that seeks marriage equality on behalf of Garden State Equality, a statewide LGBT advocacy organization, and seven same-sex couples who have been harmed from the unequal civil union system, according to Lambda Legal.
"I think there is real momentum for these rights currently in the Tri-State area, but at this point New Jersey stands alone in denying same-sex couples the right to marry," said Lambda Deputy Legal Director Hayley Gorenberg. "Obviously we think all of these couples should have equal access to the rights of other couples, and of course, the right to marry. Other states in the area and across the country have seen and understood that equality should be for everybody."
In 2002, Lambda Legal filed the case, Lewis v. Harris, which sought marriage equality on behalf of seven New Jersey couples, including Aberdeen couple Karen and Marcye Nicholson-McFadden. The case was heard by the New Jersey Supreme Court in 2006. The court ruled unanimously that same-sex couples must be provided all the benefits of marriage, although it did not mandate that marriage was specifically required. The state legislature was given 180 days to provide equality, which led to the legislature passing a civil union law in Dec. 2006, followed by the issuing of civil union licenses to lesbian and gay couples in Feb. 2007.
The domestic partnership laws provide limited health care, inheritance, property rights and other rights and obligations, but does not not approach the wide array of rights and benefits afforded to married couples, according to Lambda Legal.
"By now, everybody in New Jersey knows that civil unions don't work," said Steven Goldstein, Chair and CEO of Garden State Equality via release. "Since civil unions became law in New Jersey, Garden State Equality has received reports from a multitude of civil union couples who have told us their employers refuse to provide the equal rights and benefits the civil union law mandates. It's time for the courts to fix this mess and give full marriage equality to New Jersey's same-sex couples and their children."
The suit filed Wednesday will be combining both state and federal claims and argues that the civil union law violates the New Jersey Constitution and the Fourteenth Amendment of the federal Constitution. Gorenberg said the suit seeks to address the discrimination these couples face in denial of workplace benefits and the right to speak for their partner in medical emergencies.
"Civil unions are unfair on so many levels," Gorenberg said. "Every couple joined in this suit has a story of medical access being denied because their health care provider didn't understand what a civil union is. It just logically seems different to them because it's not called a marriage."
One of the plaintiff couples in the suit are Karen and Marcye Nicholson-McFadden, who were part of the first suit. The couple has been together for 21 years and have two children, Kasey, who is in seventh grade, and Maya, who is in third grade.
When the legislature created civil unions, Karen and Maryce were open-minded to the idea. According to Karen, after four years of mounting evidence that marriage and civil unions are unequal, it is time to recognize that civil unions are second best.
"I don't know one straight couple that would say, 'I am going to give up my marriage and take a civil union.' If civil unions are so great and so perfect, then why don't straight couples get civil unions too? And the answer is that they are not so great and so perfect; they are second best," Karen said.
The fight for equality goes far beyond just the status of being married, the couple said they have faced discrimination numerous times by having to constantly explain what a civil union is.
"I went to a new dentist a few weeks ago and civil union doesn't even exist on the paperwork. It had married, single, divorced and separated - every iteration and civil union was not on the paper. I had to rewrite the form and make my own check box with civil union in it and hand my paper work in," Karen recounted.
"And in this most recent example the woman who processed the paperwork said to me, 'Well do you want me to just put you in the system as married?' and I said "I am not married; I'm not allowed to be married in this state.' She said to me, "I'm just concerned that you might not get covered because the insurers want to see married in the system," Karen said.
The couple said they are extremely proud and not ashamed at all to admit they are in a loving relationship with a same-sex partner, but don't feel it's something they should be made to explain repeatedly in different situations to complete strangers.
"In the best scenario, [their confusion] is because they never heard of it, they don't understand it or they haven't been educated. There's no malice, but they just don't get it. And in the worst case scenarios it opens the door for discrimination because it sets you aside as different," Karen said.
For the couple's two children, who are in elementary and middle school, the fight for equality means finally being able to say their parents are married.
"I heard my daughter in first grade trying to explain to her friend what a civil union is," Karen said. "Kids do not get it. The simple thing to say is 'My parents are married just like yours. They happen to be two women, but they love each other.' We come home, we have family dinner, we do homework, we do the PTA. There's nothing exciting here."
There is no schedule set as of yet for the suit to be heard, but Gorenberg expressed confidence that the fairness question of civil unions will be considered by the courts before granting same sex couples their equal rights.
"When you look at the interactions between these couples and doctors or with schools, they're not trying to discriminate, they're just confused," she said. "They're provided with a status that is confusing and different. People are being denied their rights because the state separates them into civil unions. That's unfair and it's not right."