TRENTON - Standing with the state's leading civil rights and minority rights organizations, the ACLU-NJ today called for the end of New Jersey's unequal system of civil unions and demanded the beginning of an era of equality where all people have an equal right to marriage, regardless of their sexual orientation.
"A separate system of rights for a particular minority group has once again failed to fulfill the actual promise of equality, as has been the case throughout history," said Vice Dean of Rutgers-Newark School of Law Ronald Chen, who authored the amicus brief in the case on behalf of the ACLU-NJ and seven other notable minority rights and civil rights organizations.
Although courts have allowed legislatures to enact separate systems of rights for minorities in the past, the ACLU brief explains that judges have always struck down those systems when they are shown to perpetuate disparities. Moreover, the ACLU-NJ argues that a history of excluding a minority group from access to rights is not in itself a public interest that can justify continued exclusionary practices.
The brief cites the evidence that civil unions have not provided the equal protection the court promised in 2006, when it issued a ruling in the first iteration of this case. Since then, couples in civil unions have learned firsthand that an institution so poorly understood cannot actually protect their rights. Couples have found themselves justifying their relationship to those with influence over their lives - from their children's public school teachers to the administrators of county hospitals - who understand marriage, but not the separate new structure created only for them.
"By devaluing certain families and setting them apart from others, it affects how those families are treated in schools, in hospitals, and in almost all daily transactions. And children are most harmed of all," said ACLU-NJ Legal Director Ed Barocas. "Civil unions institute inequality in ways both mundane and profound. Our state must end the daily struggle it imposes on our fellow citizens by having denied them the right to marry."
The ACLU-NJ joined the first filing of Lewis v. Harris in 2002 on behalf of seven same-sex couples seeking the right to marry. The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled unanimously in October 2006 that granting lesser rights to same-sex couples violated the Constitution. However, the court entrusted the legislature to enact a solution, which resulted in the civil union folly that continues today. Two years later, in 2008, the state's Civil Union Review Commission found the institution fell far short of the equality the court had intended to provide. In January 2009, after an ardent campaign waged on the ground in New Jersey, the New Jersey Senate failed to pass marriage equality when the bill came up for a vote at the end of the legislative session.
The other signatories to the brief submitted today are the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, the Asian-American Legal Defense and Education Fund, the Garden State Bar Association, the Hispanic Bar Association, Legal Momentum, and the National Organization for Women of New Jersey.