The “M” Word Matters

This Sunday’sNew York Times lauds Governor Corzine for his support of same-sex marriage even though he has said that he wants to wait until 2009 to avoid muddying the political waters of next year’s Presidential race. Dr. Martin Luther King said it best when he said, “justice delayed is justice denied.” While I, too, praise the Governor for his support on this issue, I think he is dead wrong to postpone equal protections for all in deference to politics.

As New Jersey debates when to enact marriage equality — whether in 2008, as activists want, or 2009 as the Governor wants — three factors predominate over the political and legal landscape.

First, the civil union law is, as our state’s civil rights director said this week, a failure. In seven hours of testimony at the recent New Jersey Civil Union Review Commission hearings, nearly 100 couples and other expert witnesses spokeabout the failure of the civil union law to provide the equal protection that marriage provides. There were even stories about civil-unioned couples, who because they weren’t married, were havingdifficulty visiting one another in the hospital.

Second, calling same-sex relationships “marriage” wouldmake an actual difference in New Jersey. Expertsfrom Massachusetts testified that the Bay State is seeing none of the problems in same-sex marriages being recognized that New Jersey is seeing in getting civil-unions recognized. The real world,and its employers in particular,respects marriage in ways it does not respect civil unions.

Third, the Governor is wrong on the politics. It is clear that conservatives will try to make “gay marriage” an issue in 2008 to whip up its base. Butthey willdo that whether New Jersey passes a same-sex marriage law or not.And unlike in 2004, when the same sex-marriage issue was hot Presidential political fodder despite a dearth of state laws, Americans are in a state of feverish discontent over the Iraq War and the wrong direction in which our nation is headed. Those issues are way more likely to prevail. We saw signs of that in the 2006 Congressional elections, when attempts to demonize “gay marriage” felt flat.

The truth is, same-sex marriage is not a ‘gay’ issue. It is a civil rights issue, pure and simple. It is, and should be, as important to those of us in the ‘straight’ community as any other civil rights issue. Time and again, the United States Supreme Court has announced that marriage is a fundamental, constitutionally protected right of all citizens. I emphasize the word “all”. One need not even support the concept of marriage sanctioned by the church or the state to defend the rights of same-sex couples to marry. Defending that right simply means being in favor of equal rights for all.

In 1947, the California Supreme Court struck down that state’s ban on interracial marriage while 48 states still prohibited Blacks and whites from marrying. It took twenty more years, and a bloody civil rights movement for integration and voting rights, until the U.S. Supreme Court in Loving v. Virginia unanimously struck down all interracial marriage bans in the country. Thirty years later, some consenting adults can still not marry other consenting adults.

Our country has at least 1,138 federal laws “in which marital status is a factor.” The Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution makes denial of rights or benefits without substantive due process a violation of the right to equal protection of all citizens. Yet, despite the passage of a civil union law in 2006 granting equal protections to gay and lesbian citizens, same-sex couples in New Jersey continue to be denied the rights and benefits that straight couples enjoy.

If we are honest, we cannot say that civil unions in New Jerseyare ‘just as good’ as marriage or even ‘good enough.’In addition tothe overwhelming evidence presented at the Civil Union Review Commission hearings, newspapers across the state have conductedindependent investigations of how the civil union law is working. All theinvestigations arrived at the same conclusion: The state’s civil union law is not providing same-sex couples the rights and benefits that marriage would. History, therefore, has proven the dissenting justices in the October 2006 N.J. Supreme Court decisionthat led tocivil unions to be correct.”The word ‘marriage’ initself,” the dissenters wrote, “conveys tremendous importance and advantages.” Yes, the “M” word matters.

In Lawrence v. Texas (2003), the Supreme Court held that the right to private consensual sexual conduct was a protected right under the Fourteenth Amendment and noted that “moral disapproval does not constitute legitimate governmental interest under the Equal Protection Clause.” Advocates, as well as opponentsofmarriage equality believe this ruling paved the way for subsequent decisions invalidating state prohibitions on same-sex marriage.

New Jersey should lead the way. As marriage is indeed a ‘fundamental right’ and a civil right, then marriage equality for all New Jersey’s citizens should be the law. Enactment, and justice, should not be delayed, not even for one more day.

The “M” Word Matters