The Battle for Marriage Equality

Newark City Hall at midnight on October 21, 2013

Newark City Hall at midnight on October 21, 2013

On Oct. 21, New Jersey became the 14th state in the nation to recognize marriage for gay and lesbian couples. From Newark to Lambertville to Asbury Park, couples exchanged vows just after the stroke of midnight, surrounded by friends and family. These celebrations capped a long fought campaign for marriage equality that became more pressing after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in June.

The ACLU-NJ is proud to have been one of the primary organizations in the state working to win marriage equality. Along with our close ally Garden State Equality, we founded New Jersey United for Marriage (NJUM), which became the leading coalition in the fight against New Jersey’s separate and unequal system of civil unions.

Doomsday for DOMA

When the New Jersey legislature created civil unions in 2006, it was under the condition that they be completely equal to marriage, as dictated by the New Jersey Supreme Court in the decision Lewis v. Harris. While this promise was never fulfilled, everything changed in June when the U.S. Supreme Court, in an ACLU case, struck down a key part of DOMA and required the federal government to recognize marriages of same-sex couples.

In contrast with our neighbors in New York and Delaware, the decision came as bittersweet news for same-sex couples in the Garden State. Same-sex spouses all along the northeast would now be granted more than 1,000 rights and benefits, while New Jersey couples in civil unions would be denied those rights.

United Against Civil Unions

New Jersey United for Marriage

New Jersey United for Marriage hosted a kickoff rally on July 24, 2013 on the boardwalk at Asbury Park.

By the time the U.S. Supreme Court issued its historic decision, the ACLU-NJ had begun training and deploying ACLU members and supporters to persuade lawmakers to vote to override Gov. Chris Christie’s 2012 veto of the marriage equality bill. Energized by DOMA’s demise, the ACLU-NJ stepped up its efforts as New Jersey became the epicenter of the next big battle for marriage equality. Through NJUM, we partnered with Garden State Equality, Freedom to Marry, Lambda Legal, American Unity Fund, Human Rights Campaign, and Gill Action.

As a coalition, we held rallies and countless of lobby visits, organized thousands of constituent calls, and conducted crucial face-to-face conversations in key legislative districts. Due to our efforts, Republicans and Democrats alike joined the movement for marriage equality.

Marriage – At Last

Harriet Bernstein and Luisa Paster

Jeanne LoCicero ACLU-NJ deputy legal director officiates the marriage ceremony of Harriet Bernstein (left) and Luisa Paster on October 25, 2013 at the Starving Artist in Ocean Grove, New Jersey.

On Sept. 27, Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson ruled that New Jersey must recognize same-sex marriages or be in violation of the state constitution. The ruling came in the case of Garden State Equality v. Dow, a lawsuit brought by Lambda Legal and the law firm of Gibbons P.C. The ACLU-NJ filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of a coalition of civil rights organizations.

Judge Jacobson ordered marriages to begin Oct. 21 and Gov. Christie immediately appealed the ruling and asked the court to delay the marriages until the appeals were over. On Oct. 18, just days before weddings were supposed to start, the New Jersey Supreme Court unanimously rejected Christie’s attempt to delay marriages.

Facing tremendous pressure from NJUM, Gov. Christie dropped the appeal just hours after the first same-sex couples tied the knot in New Jersey on Oct. 21. Christie’s decision delivered an unexpected wedding present to same-sex couples all over the state: the security of knowing that no matter what happened, the legality of their marriages was as certain as the love they shared.

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