New Jersey High Court to Weigh Gay Marriage Case

New Jersey's Supreme Court will hear arguments Wednesday in a case that could legalize gay marriage in the state. New Jersey is one of eight states being sued by gay couples — polls there show 55 percent of voters support same-sex marriage.

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Since the 1960s, gays and lesbians have moved to cities, like, San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles, where their greater numbers changed local politics and influenced the national gay movement. The fight over same-sex marriage may very well find its next battleground in the cul-de-sacs and shopping malls of New Jersey. New Jersey is one of eight states being sued by gay couples, and polls there show that 55 percent of voters support same-sex marriage. Nancy Solomon reports.

NANCY SOLOMON reporting:

The New Jersey Supreme Court will hear the case tomorrow of seven gay and lesbian couples who have sued the state for the right to obtain a marriage license.

Mr. DAVID BUCKLE (Senior Attorney, Lambda Legal): They can't pick and choose who gets to access that kind of advantage. They need to be fair.

SOLOMON: David Buckle, of Lambda Legal, represents the couples and will argue the New Jersey constitution promises liberty and equality to all of its citizens, whether they have the support of the majority or not. Buckle says marriage confers dignity and respect, as well as economic benefits.

BUCKLE: It's about families looking to try to access family health insurance, not pay down double deductibles, be able to go to the doctor, and in front of their children, not have to say that they're single.

SOLOMON: Buckle says the gay rights group chooses its battles very carefully. New Jersey courts ruled in favor of a gay Boy Scout who sued for the right to stay in the organization. And it was the first state to legalize adoption for same-sex couples.

Patrick DeAlmeida will argue against same-sex marriage for the state Attorney General's Office. He says there's nothing in the New Jersey constitution that creates a right for all citizens to have access to marriage.

Mr. PATRICK DEALMEIDA (Deputy State Attorney General, New Jersey): The state's briefs does not make any sort of moral judgment with respect to gay relationships; and does not attempt to, in anyway, disparage the relationships. And that's different than what other states have argued. It may very well be that the legislature says yes, we've have domestic partnerships, let's extend marriage. But that's something the legislature has to do. It's not up to the members of the Supreme Court to decide what's good for the state on social issues.

SOLOMON: New Jersey's Domestic Partnership Law only allows state employees to obtain benefits for same-sex partners. It falls short of marriage in the way couples are taxed, how they are treated by hospitals, or how property is treated after the death of a partner.

Maureen Killian and Cindy Meneghin, who are plaintiffs in the New Jersey lawsuit, say they must spend more on healthcare, lawyers' fees, and taxes than married couples. As they prepared for dinner with their two kids one night recently, Meneghin refuted the idea that domestic partnership gives her family the benefits or respect that comes with marriage.

Ms. CINDY MENEGHIN (Plaintiff, Gay Rights Lawsuit): If you love somebody and you couldn't protect them, and take care of them, with all your heart and all your might, would you be willing to be given a little bit at a time? My sense is nobody would ever want that for themselves. So why would they think we would want it for the person we love and our family?

SOLOMON: The women call themselves the Ozzie and Harriet of the gay community. They live in Butler, a largely Republican hamlet in northern New Jersey, spend lots of time with their extended family, and are active in church and their kids' school.

Stephanie Koontz is a professor at Evergreen State College and the author of a history of marriage. She says courts have continually updated marriage laws to fit changing social norms. A husband no longer has the right to beat his wife, for example. And married women now have the same rights to property as their husbands.

Ms. STEPHANIE KOONTZ (Author, Marriage, A History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage): What's often called activist judges is really is better-termed, re-activist ones. They have to deal with reality. They can't afford to keep their heads in the clouds saying well, this is the way it was done in 1789. Why don't we continue doing it that way?

SOLOMON: If the New Jersey Supreme Court finds in favor of gay marriage, this is one state where it's likely to stick. It would take legislative action to counter the court's ruling. But both political parties say they would oppose a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.

For NPR News, I'm Nancy Solomon.

MONTAGNE: And you can read up on similar lawsuits in other states at npr.org.

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