Tuesday, December 8, 2009

a legal argument for marriage equality

In 2006, the New Jersey Supreme Court Case Lewis v. Harris brings up several key arguments about the institution of marriage and what role the government should play. The Plaintiffs in the case are seven same-sex couples in long-term relationships who seek the remedies of the right to marry and all the legal benefits that come with marriage. Ultimately the Court told the legislature that they had to pass same-sex marriage or an equivalent institution that would grant same-sex couples the same legal benefits that come with marriage. The “separate but equal” institution of a civil union is supposed to grant same-sex couples all the legal rights of marriage short of calling their union marriage. Vermont was the first state to pass a civil union law, followed by Connecticut, New Jersey, and New Hampshire. Some other states currently have domestic partnerships, but not civil unions. All civil union states except for New Jersey have since upgraded to full marriage equality for all couples regardless of their gender.

The intent behind civil unions is good—to provide same-sex couples with all the legal benefits of marriage without “damaging” the institution of marriage. It’s seen as a compromise that many voters can agree on. As Vermont, New Hampshire, and Connecticut have realized, they do not work. Many laws currently on the books that give married couples legal rights—such as the right to visit each other in the hospital, and to obtain health insurance through the spouse’s employer—are supposed to be extended to couples in civil unions, but are not. In New Jersey, many employers who offer health insurance benefits to a person’s spouse will not offer the same benefits to a person’s civil union partner. Hospitals often do not give medical information to a civil union partner the same way they would to a spouse. Also more same-sex couples are raising children together, and it is hard for a child to explain a civil union relationship.

Much of the opposition to marriage equality comes from a religious point of view. Many religious people see marriage as the exclusive union between one man and one woman as their religious text says. However the United States and New Jersey Constitutions have a provision for the separation of church and state. In my opinion any religion can deny a couple the right to get married for whatever reason, but a non-related pair of consenting adults should not be denied a civil marriage. Ultimately marriage is a civil institution. When a marriage ends in divorce, it is the state and not the church that will ultimately end the couple’s legal relationship. If the marriage equality bill passes the New Jersey Legislature, there is a provision that would not require churches to recognize or perform same-sex marriages.

There is already case law on the books that establishes marriage as a fundamental human right. In 1967, the United State Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia ruled that Virginia’s marriage laws violated the due process clause and the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Before her death in 2008, Mrs. Loving spoke on the issue of marriage equality and said that she believed that all couples should have the right to marry.

In 1967, the Courts decided that couples should not be discriminated against on the basis of race (incidentally this year, a Louisiana Justice of the Peace refused marriage to an interracial couple). At the time, race was the important civil rights battle of the generation. Now another generation is here along with another civil rights battle. The civil rights battle of the early twenty-first century is to end discrimination based on sexual orientation. New Jersey is a leader in anti-discrimination laws against the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community. In this day and age and with New Jersey’s anti-discrimination reputation on the line, it only makes sense to pass full marriage equality for all couples regardless of gender.

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