New Jersey’s rocky road to marriage equality

New Jersey’s rocky road to marriage equality

The Jewish Standard has enabled a productive dialogue on the sensitive subject of gay marriage. I am pleased to join in that conversation.

I was the prime sponsor of the current civil union law. I was also the prime sponsor of the Freedom of Religion and Equality in Civil Marriage Act, which did not get the required votes to pass. As an affiliated Jewish woman, I think I can speak to this issue with some experience.

I met with many groups as these laws and bills developed. I spent a great deal of time with representatives of our Orthodox community, both in Trenton and in my Teaneck office. They very respectfully made me aware of their own sensitivities and understanding of Torah. We had open exchanges on this issue. I and my colleagues in the Legislature were very sensitive to their concerns ourselves, which is why the Freedom of Religion and Equality in Civil Marriage Act makes it clear that no religious leader is called upon to perform such ceremonies if he or she chooses not to do so. The religious freedom protections are many and clearly stated in the bill. Marriage laws are “civil laws” granted by our state, and do not address any religious component except enumerating that clergypersons are among those permitted to perform such legally recognized unions.

When the Supreme Court of New Jersey issued its ruling that gay couples were entitled to all the rights and responsibilities of “marriage,” it issued another decision on a 4 to 3 vote instructing the Legislature to call this “new” civil right whatever the Legislature chose to call it. Speaking for the minority, then-Chief Justice Deborah Poritz (a former English teacher) said, “Words do matter,” and these unions should be called “marriage.”

As the sponsor, it became obvious to me that, at that time, I would not be able to get a bill passed that used the word “marriage” and, therefore, compromised on conferring all the “rights and responsibilities of marriage” to gay couples in a formulation that was then (and now) to be called “civil unions.” Included in this bill was a commission to monitor the implementation of the civil union law and to report back to the Legislature if it was being applied as we and the court meant it to be.

The Legislature received much testimony via that commission as to why the civil union law is not adequately providing true equality to same-sex couples. Some people just do not understand what a civil union is and do not understand its full legal implications. Testimony was received about civil union partners being denied access to the bedside of a seriously ill “spouse” or a school not recognizing both as parents of a child. So in the lame duck session of the New Jersey Legislature, we put up the new Freedom of Religion and Equality in Civil Marriage Act, which unhappily failed to win the required 21 votes to pass the Senate. Because of the new issues raised by the “inequality” created by the use of the term civil union, same-sex marriage is again in the courts, and will most likely be decided in New Jersey by our judicial system.

No matter what the New Jersey Supreme Court decides, a gay couple legally married in our state or any other country will not be entitled to Social Security benefits because of the federal anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act signed in 1996. Today in New Jersey, if a gay couple are legally married elsewhere, they are recognized as only being in a civil union in New Jersey. Imagine, for a moment, if any of us legally married in one state could not be recognized as being married in New Jersey.

In crafting the Freedom of Religion and Equality in Civil Marriage Act legislation, I was compelled to wonder why should the rabbi leading the congregation to which I belong be prevented from legally sanctioning same-gender marriages if he feels they fit into our Jewish religious beliefs, values, and commitment to building family. Members of any religious group in our country are entitled to practice their beliefs and to not be compelled to do anything they find in contradiction within their houses of worship.

Legislatively, I know we respect these differences. Personally, I know I respect the differences within my own Jewish community. But it is sad and hurtful when those differences cause pain and isolation to other members of our community. Without this conversation we will be contributing to that isolation and pain that has led to the high rate of suicide among gay youth in our nation and in our state.

I know that most of our Orthodox rabbis and some of our political leaders believe that same-sex unions are against God’s law. But I also know that many others believe that we are born into our sexual identities and that love and commitment to another human being should be cherished, not isolated – that making a public commitment to another person should be celebrated and enjoyed on our simcha pages. I look forward to these differences being acknowledged, but most important accepted, so that we can live comfortably within our religious institutions while recognizing who each of us really is as a distinct human being.

And so I know that eventually the Supreme Court of New Jersey will be hearing this case appealed by a group of couples whose years together in each of their individual committed relationships are longer than the average marriage lasts in New Jersey. They are couples who are raising or have raised children in loving families. I know some day these family units will be recognized with the full equality and recognition of the word “marriage.” I know that no religious leader can or should be required to perform such ceremonies. Under our bill, clergy are also not required to have their houses of worship used for such ceremonies or celebrations. The bill is about “civil laws,” not religious sanctions. And that is why it is named the Freedom of Religion and Equality in Civil Marriage Act.

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