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New Jersey Employment and Civil Rights Lawyer Discusses Marriage Equality in New Jersey

A rose by any other name . . . still stinks

This isn't the first time I've blogged about the idea of equal marriage rights in our state. I've talked about it before, in more than one way, and on more than one occasion. I've even told the story of the young woman who went into a bridal shop to get ready to enjoy the same rite of passage with her girlfriends that any other bride would wish to enjoy, only to find that the bridal store owner was openly bigoted and rushed the young lady out of the store when she realized that the young lady intended to marry another woman.

I suggested that that sort of bigotry made it obvious why the word "marriage" is the only word which can be used to describe a marriage, because we can all agree that the bigoted store owner must certainly have felt emboldened by the fact that she wasn't, after all, being bigoted to someone who was going to marry, but rather to someone who was going to enter some sort of cumbersome "union," or "partnership," that no one, not even those in them, really understand. I've also related, as have many other commentators, the experience of same sex couples who have utilized the ineffective and deplorably insufficient states of "domestic partnership" and "civil union" to assert their rights when a spouse was receiving medical care to see the spouse, to visit the spouse, and to make medical decisions for the spouse when the medically impaired spouse was unable to do so. I've talked about the vitriolic bigotry that people face in those situations despite the fact that, as a matter of law, their status as a "domestic partner" or "civil union partner" supposedly guaranteed them the same rights of visitation and medical decision making than any married spouse would enjoy. I've even talked about those medical professionals who had no desire to be bigoted, but because they were unfamiliar with the legalities associated with such pathetic terms as "civil union partner" and "domestic partner" - none of those people are lawyers and even most lawyers don't understand the distinctions - they would refuse visitation and refuse the right to make medical decisions out of the desire not to break some other law.

Yet even 1st graders know what "marriage" means. Put very simply, and very bluntly: if a six year old understands what "marriage" means, and if a 50 year old advanced degree holder in the medical, legal, engineering or other field doesn't know what "civil union" or "domestic partner" mean in terms of details, unless they receive a special half day course, then it is time to recognize that the terms don't work.

After the pathetic decision in Lewis v. Harris, a decision which many dedicated lawyers on the side of civil justice were involved including myself, the push to legislatively recognize equal marriage rights in New Jersey was on. As you might expect, it's mostly the gay, lesbian and transgender community which has the most important "horse in the race" and for that reason, you would expect many of the supporters to come from that constituency. In fact, many do.

On the other hand, many supporters are also straight. It doesn't take much to be a straight supporter of equal marriage rights. It simply takes recognition that, regardless of your religious, cultural or other assumptions, fears and traditions, it simply makes sense to allow two committed people who are willing to pay the fee to become married, to do so. It makes sense to let them establish a loving household and to try, as do straight couples, to stay together, raise a family and be of value to themselves, their families and their communities.

Will all homosexual couples who marry stay together? Nope. Some will get divorced, but then again, this affects straight couples all the time. The divorce rate in this country is climbing and that is exclusively a product of straight couples divorcing, so straight people, let's tend to our own houses before we bar others, shall we? There's nothing inherently "less stable" about homosexual couples than straight couples. The sanctity of marriage is what it is. Either the two individuals who "marry" accept that sanctity, and try their best to preserve it and to make sure that it's not entered into lightly, or they don't. There's nothing less deserving in a homosexual person than in a straight person that suggests that they're more likely not to take that state seriously.

At the end of the day, it doesn't matter what church you go to, what cultural "assumptions" you've been raised with, or what innate and irrational fears you have about what other peoples' marriages mean to yours. Gay people are going to be together whether you like it or not. They're going to create lifelong commitments together whether you like it or not. You might as well respect it, let them pay the same fee everyone else does, let them enjoy the same benefits (medical, legal, etc.) and the same responsibilities as straight couples accept as a matter of course.

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved the Marriage Equality Bill 8 to 4, a notable difference from the narrow 7 to 6 victory in the same committee the last time the bill went forth in December of 2009. Here we are, just over two years later, and the margin has widened considerably.

As well, Senator Steve Sweeney, who has remarked that he did not make the right decision the first time he had occasion to vote against the bill, is now one of the bill's firm and devoted champions. This is admirable and the sort of quality I want to see in a leader. Unlike the ill-advised and ignorant ranting of George Bush in 2004, who seemed to think in the presidential race that an inability to change one's mind in the face of changed facts is a strength (and sadly, many Americans agreed), the ability to change one's mind is a sign of a committed and honorable intellect, especially when the reason that one changes their mind is because one meets with new information that compels such a change.

In addition, Senator Paul Sarlo has also become a supporter of the initiative. In committee, he made very eloquent remarks about the demonstrable failure of the "separate but equal" states of domestic partnership and civil union.

I have no illusions that this governor will not sign such a bill. Whether or not he outright vetoes the bill or simply "pocket" vetoes the bill, will not be relevant this go around. What is important this go around is that the legislative message be sent that the time has come to fix the inequity.

The only opponent of equal marriage rights at this point is someone who is frightened of something, or someone who is being told to be an opponent by religious or political dogma. Neither is acceptable in a responsible and educated adult. I have confidence that most citizens of New Jersey are responsible and educated adults to a degree sufficient to remedy the last civil rights stain on our collective state consciousness.

A rose by any other name still stinks. The time for marriage equality has come.

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