TRENTON – New Jersey gay rights advocates took their battle to bring marriage equality to the Garden State to Superior Court Thursday.
In an attempt to seek immediate relief in a years-old lawsuit, advocates argued “there is no conceivable justification” for New Jersey to continue to discriminate against gay couples in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling that struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, said Lawrence Lustberg.
“What we’re seeing now is the state saying don’t blame us … even though the origin of the problem here resides clearly with the state,” Lustberg said before Mercer County Assignment Judge Mary Jacobson.
“There is ongoing harm every single day for people who are denied their federal benefits,” he argued, adding, “in real life, having a civil union is not the same as having a marriage.”
The proceeding comes after the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a groundbreaking decision striking down a provision of federal law that denied marriage benefits to gay couples. Plaintiffs, which include Garden State Equality, argued a judge can hand down a judgment immediately on an ongoing lawsuit filed two years ago because of the U.S. Supreme Court’s DOMA decision.
They argue New Jersey’s civil union system, which is a result of a 2006 New Jersey Supreme Court decision, maintains same-sex couples in the Garden State should be entitled to the same rights as couples of the opposite sex. Now, Garden State gay advocates argue, the state’s civil union system is inherently unequal because the thousands of couples with civil unions in the state do not qualify for federal benefits.
However, the state argued simply that marriages and civil unions are equal under state law and said the only inequality is with federal law. The state, which was represented by Assistant Attorney General Kevin Jespersen, argued the legal challenge is better suited for a legal challenge in federal court.
“The state treats both classes of citizens equal,” said Jespersen, who argued “the source of this dilemma” is with federal law – not state statute. It’s the federal government’s decision to treat the two differently, he said.
“The court can’t look at the state constitution to impose upon the state a remedy to address conduct of the federal [government],” Jespersen said.
Advocates based their arguments off the 2006 state Supreme Court decision handed down in the case of Lewis v. Harris. The ruling gave the Legislature a period of time to either amend New Jersey marriage laws or pass a civil union bill.
“In a post-Lewis world there must be equality in rights of benefits for same sex couples,” Lustberg said.
“Today this court can take a significant step towards realizing the dreams of the plaintiffs in this case,” he said. “Not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s the law.”