Legislature grants gay couples civil union rights


Staff Writer

TRENTON — Same-sex couples in New Jersey will now have access to all the legal rights and responsibilities heterosexual couples possess, except for the right to call their relationship “marriage.”

On Thursday, the New Jersey Legislature passed a bill that will allow same-sex couples to have civil unions, an arrangement that is, in all legal senses of the word, a marriage in everything but name. After intense debate, some from those wishing to include same-sex couples in marriage laws, and some opposing even civil unions, the Assembly passed the bill 56-19, and the Senate voted 23-12.

The vote comes 60 days after the Supreme Court gave the Legislature 180 days to come up with either a fully equal, parallel legal institution for same-sex couples, or to open marriage applicability to them. People both for and against same-sex marriage felt that the bill was rushed through the Legislature without sufficient time to ponder its ramifications. Some felt that it just wasn’t time for same-sex marriage yet, though they held out hope for the possibility that sometime in the future, it might.

“Based on where the votes were, I’m not sure people’s minds would have changed substantially,” said Assemblywoman Linda Greenstein (D-Middlesex/Mercer), who voted for the bill. “Maybe they would have been able to change a few votes, but probably not enough to make a difference at least this time. Just based on discussions with my colleagues, it seems that this time the furthest people really wanted to go was the civil union.”

Greenstein said that after surveying the members of the Legislature, it was determined that not enough people supported same-sex marriage to even think it worth bringing to the floor for a vote.

“Leadership said there’s no point in putting [the same-sex marriage bill] up since we don’t have the votes at this time, so let’s only put up what we can get the votes for,” said Greenstein.

While opponents of the bill were in the minority, they were nonetheless quite vocal in the idea that marriage should remain between a man and a woman. More than one Assembly member invoked a religious argument in citing opposition to the civil union bill.

“It is my personal belief, faith and religious practice that marriage has been defined in the Bible,” said Assemblyman Ronald Dancer (R-Ocean/Monmouth/

Mercer/Burlington). “I respect everyone’s personal religious beliefs, faith and practices but I would ask that marriage be known by no other name nor let marriage ever be redefined by any other lawmaking authority.”

Many other opponents of the bill cited that its creation blurred the separation of powers and that having the Supreme Court force the Legislature to make a bill was undemocratic.

“No way will I ever vote on any measure because the Supreme Court ordered me to,” said Assemblyman Sam Thompson (R-Monmouth/Middlesex).

Some members of the Assembly, however, noted that they would have supported civil unions regardless and that the court had no bearing on their decision.

“I’m not voting because the Supreme Court told me to. I’m voting for this because it’s the right thing to do,” said Assemblyman Gerald Green (D-Middlesex/Somerset/Union).

While the bill is seen by some supporters as a definite step forward, many were still not satisfied that the alternate bill, which would have simply opened up marriage eligibility to same-sex couples, did not go through.

“I only wish this body would move on full marriage rights,” said Assemblyman Mims Hackett (D-Essex), who sponsored the full marriage equality bill, which did not make it to the floor.

Drawing from past experiences as a black man growing up in the South, Hackett cited concerns that the bill’s emphasis on equality may be no more than a toothless tiger.

“I was told the facilities were separate but equal, but I knew better. We all knew better,” said Hackett.

He later said that he fully plans to continue fighting for same-sex marriage, a sentiment echoed by several other members of the Assembly. It is also echoed by civil rights groups throughout the state, which say that the fight is far from over.

“It’s a bittersweet moment,” said Steven Goldstein, chair of Garden State Equality. “New Jersey is making tremendous strides, but we’re not getting full marriage equality and we’re not going to settle for anything less. The fight is not over by a long shot.”

To at least some of the seven plaintiffs who were involved in the Supreme Court case that eventually mandated this bill, the word “bittersweet” definitely does describe the emotions attached to the bill’s passage.

“It’s just disappointing, I have to say,” said Marcye Nicholson-McFadden, who lives in Aberdeen with her partner, Karen Nicholson-McFadden and their two children. “You know, every step forward is a good step and we’re happy for that, and it does give our family a lot of protection. So there are very real and tangible benefits but I wish I would be more excited about it but it feels so much less than full equality because it is less than full equality.”

Nicholson-McFadden said that she and her partner do plan to get “civil unioned” as they have to think of their children. She agreed that the fight is far from over and is optimistic that New Jersey will eventually see full marriage equality.