EDITORIAL: Remove final barrier to equality

   A state panel has issued a report that makes it clear that New Jersey should join Massachusetts and Connecticut and make same-sex marriage legal.
   The New Jersey Civil Union Review Commission, which issued its report on Dec. 10, has found that civil unions have failed to address fully the concerns raised by the state Supreme Court when it ruled in 2006 that gays and lesbians were being denied equal treatment under the law by being denied access to the rights enjoyed by heterosexual married couples.
   The court in its October 2006 decision said that, under the state constitution, “committed same-sex couples must be afforded on equal terms the same rights and benefits enjoyed by married opposite-sex couples” and that “not affording same-sex couples the same rights as other married couples would violate the state constitution’s concept of liberty.”
   The court, however, punted on the question of whether committed same-sex relationships should be called marriage. The state Legislature punted as well, passing a civil unions law that was supposed to guarantee same-sex couples the same rights as heterosexual, married couples – but denying those couples the right to marry.
   The result, according to the report issued by the Civil Union Review Commission, has been an unequal playing field created by “the separate categorization established by the Civil Union Act.” There have been documented cases of employers and hospitals treating same-sex couples in civil unions differently than heterosexual married couples, the report says, while at the same time telling the public that “same-sex couples are not equal to opposite-sex married couples in the eyes of the law, that they are ‘not good enough’ to warrant true equality.”
   The commission offered a simple recommendation: Amend state law to allow same-sex couples to marry.”
   We agree and encourage the state Legislature to adopt a bill that has been sitting dormant in the Assembly Judiciary Committee since January — the Civil Marriage and Religious Protection Act, which has been sponsored by Assemblyman Reed Gusciora, D-Mercer, along with Democrats Valerie Huttle Vainieri , Gordon Johnson and Connie Wagner of Bergen County and John F. McKeon and Mila M. Jasey of Essex County.
   The legislation, which is before the Assembly Judiciary Committee chaired by Assemblywoman Linda Greenstein, D-Plainsboro, would define marriage as the legally recognized union of two consenting persons in a committed relationship. The bill calls for references to “marriage,” “man,” “woman,” “husband” or “wife” within in the context of marriage in any law, statute, rule, regulation or order, to be deemed to mean to “the union of two persons,” regardless of gender.
   At the same time, the legislation would exempt religious officials from having to perform marriages — an important provision that allows the Civil Marriage and Religious Protection Act to remain consistent with both the religion clause of the First Amendment and the state’s constitution.
   Assembly Speaker Joe Roberts, D-Camden, has long supported same-sex marriage, reaffirming his support last week.
   And yet, the Legislature has done little to move the A-818 forward. Let’s hope the speaker is correct and the commission’s report “spark(s) a renewed sense of purpose and urgency to overcoming one of society’s last remaining barriers to full equality for all residents.”