While they cannot officially marry, same-sex couples in New Jersey can now enjoy the same rights granted to married couples, thanks to a law signed two weeks ago authorizing civil unions. An enforcement clause in the new legislation, however, has some officials questioning whether the state has overstepped its boundaries.
Mayors, religious leaders grapple with N.J. civil unions law
The law, which Gov. Jon Corzine signed on Dec. ‘1, will go into effect Feb. 19. Some mayors, like Steve Lonegan of Bogota, have spoken out publicly against civil unions, while other mayors say they will accept the new law without hesitation.
Understanding that city and state officials would be conflicted on the issue, N.J. Attorney General Stuart Rabner wrote to the state registrar of vital statistics, on Dec. ‘1, that "[w]here a public official elects to be available generally to solemnize marriages, he or she must also be available generally to solemnize civil unions."
Officials are not required to perform civil unions, according to the attorney general; however, if they perform marriage ceremonies, they must perform civil unions as well or face penalties. First-time penalties include fines of up to $10,000.
Members of the clergy also have the power to perform civil unions. Jewish movements differ in their approach to gay unions. While the Reconstructionist movement sanctions gay marriage and the Reform movement leaves the decision to individual rabbis, the Conservative movement is still testing the waters of its new stance on commitment ceremonies, and the Orthodox do not recognize gay marriage at all.
Reform Rabbi Neal Borovitz of Temple Sholom in River Edge said he would perform civil unions as long as both participants are Jewish. Although the Reform movement sanctioned commitment ceremonies in ‘000, Borovitz has not performed any because the unions lacked legal status.
"My policy has always been that I only officiate at marriages when both people are Jewish and that it was acceptable by civil law," he said. If a heterosexual couple were to approach him to perform a religious marriage ceremony without the civil component, he would turn them away as well.
It is important, though, to respect those with different views of civil unions, he added. In his view, the state overstepped its bounds by forcing civil servants to choose between performing all ceremonies or no ceremonies.
"I’m against that aspect of the law. There should be freedom of choice for officiates as well," he said. "Many of these civil officiates may decide for political reasons they’re not going to officiate at marriages anymore, which will close avenues for people. It was an unwise position for the law."
When interfaith couples ask Borovitz to marry them, he refers them to a state official who can perform a civil ceremony. Public officials should be able to make similar choices, he said. "No one should be forced to officiate at a ceremony they don’t feel comfortable officiating at. It takes away any meaning."
Rabbi Arthur Weiner of the Conservative Jewish Community Center of Paramus disagrees. While he does not believe the state should be empowered to force clergy to perform civil unions, he supports the new law’s enforcement policies for civil servants who are strictly bound by the law.
"A restaurant can’t refuse seating to anyone based on race, religion, or background," he said. "We don’t want a judge or mayor or others with the power to conduct marriages deciding what is a good marriage and what is a bad marriage."
The same kind of enforcement policy is not applicable to rabbis, he said, even though clergy are granted the right to perform marriage by the state. To be legal, the religious wedding ceremony must be preceded by a brief civil ceremony, Weiner explained, but because a rabbi is a religious figure, the state cannot mandate what ceremonies he performs.
"The state is not allowed to deny me my right to practice my religion freely," Weiner said, supporting his own decision not to perform civil unions or recently sanctioned Conservative commitment ceremonies. (Rabner could not be reached for confirmation of this interpretation.)
Steven Goldstein, chair of Garden State Equality a gay-rights organization and a Reconstructionist rabbinical student, said that as a Jew, he’s very happy with the same-sex union law, but it still does not go far enough.
"The new civil unions law is a step in the right direction," said Goldstein, who has lived in Teaneck. "It treats gay couples with a separate but unequa discriminatory status."
Goldstein is also concerned about the state’s interfering with religious decisions, but not in the same way as Borovitz.
"When the state refuses to empower rabbis who are allowed to perform same-sex ceremonies [by their movements], the state is unfairly involved in matters of religion," he said.
Goldstein expects New Jersey to legalize gay marriage within the next two years. "We’re very optimistic," he said. "Within the last two years, New Jersey has passed 19 civil rights laws for LGBTA [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered, Allies]. We’re moving at a faster pace than any other state in the country."
The Jewish mayors of North Jersey do not foresee a clash of religion and civic duty when it comes time for them to implement the new law.
Fred Pitofsky, who stepped down as mayor of Closter this week, said he performed 10 marriage ceremonies last year. If the legislation had taken effect while he was still mayor, he "would just have to rewrite my ceremony. The law is the law. If somebody requested a ceremony, I would have to do it," he said.
Councilwoman Sophie Heymann, who became the mayor of Closter on Tuesday, echoed Pitofsky’s views. "That’s part of my job if I do [perform any marriage ceremonies]," she said. "We’re talking about a civil union, not a religious marriage. Civil union recognizes something that isn’t necessarily sexual. Marriage has a different connotation in my mind and [for] most other people."
That connotation makes all the difference for the Closter mayor.
"I believe very firmly that people who devote their lives to each other are entitled to rights. Sexual orientation has nothing to do with that phase of things," she said.
The word "abomination," which is used in the Bible to describe homosexual activities, is used in other situations that don’t carry as much weight, Heymann said. "There are other things that are cited as abominations that happen all the time and nobody does anything about it."
Eli Katz of Teaneck is one of two Orthodox mayors in The Jewish Standard coverage area. But because of time constraints on the mayor/business-owner, he said he does not foresee the opportunity to perform marriages. He would not comment further.
Michael Wildes, the Orthodox mayor of Englewood, who was sworn in Tuesday for his second term, could not be reached for comment by press time. In December, he told The Record that he would preside over same-sex unions as mandated by the law.
For Peter Rustin, mayor of Tenafly, officiating at marriages is the best part of his job, and he doesn’t feel any religious conflict about performing civil unions. Legalizing gay marriage is a question of logic, he said.
"We’re allowing same-sex couples to adopt children now and if that’s the case, then why shouldn’t they be entitled to some of the other benefits of a family?" he said. "I’m not going to tell you a relationship between two men is the same as a heterosexual marriage, but if they want to live together and raise a family, God bless them."