N.J. Court Clears the Way for Same-Sex Marriage

New Jersey's legislature has six months to either grant gay couples the right to marry, or come up with another civil-union type system, after the state's highest court ruled Wednesday that homosexual couples are due all of the rights accorded to heterosexual couples.

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New Jersey Supreme Court ruled yesterday that gay and lesbian couples in that state are entitled to some sort of marriage rights. But instead of legalizing gay marriage, as Massachusetts has done, the court left it to the New Jersey state legislature to decide whether to call it civil union or marriage.

Nancy Solomon reports.

NANCY SOLOMON: The court was in unanimous agreement that same-sex couples face discrimination and are deserving of the same benefits and privileges that come with marriage. But the majority wasn't willing to say the state must use the M-word. One of the seven couples who sued the state, Marcye and Karen Nicholson-McFadden, stood before a crowded press conference with their two children and explained why a civil union is not enough.

Unidentified Woman #1: It's something fundamentally different.

Unidentified Woman #2: And less than.

Unidentified Woman #1: And less than. We never got involved in this to get something that was less than marriage. It's about the dignity of our family. It's about Kasey saying to his friends, my parents are married, they're not civil unioned.

SOLOMON: As disappointed as the couples were, lawyers for Lambda Legal, the organization working to legalize gay marriage, say the New Jersey decision was an extraordinary victory. David Buckle, who argued the case before the court, says the decision made it clear that same-sex couples must be treated equally.

Mr. DAVID BUCKLE (Attorney, Lambda Legal): I want to just read two sentences here that captures what all the justices agreed upon.

Our decision today significantly advances the civil rights of gays and lesbians. We have decided that our state constitution guarantees that every statutory right and benefit conferred to heterosexual couples through civil marriage must be made available to committed same-sex couples.

SOLOMON: The court differed, however, about how to provide those couples with the same rights. A minority opinion, written by Chief Justice Deborah Poritz, favored gay marriage as the only equal option. But Justice Barry Albin, writing for the court's majority, said the state does not need to take an all-or-nothing approach. Opponents of gay marriage were unhappy with the decision, but relieved that the court didn't mandate use of the word marriage.

Maggie Gallagher, president of the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy, says marriage is something special that only heterosexuals can do.

Ms. MAGGIE GALLAGHER (Institute for Marriage and Public Policy): Only a man and a woman can both make the next generation and unite that child to its own mother and father, to the two people who created it.

SOLOMON: Marriage is a key social institution, Gallagher says, that is in need of reinforcement and a traditional definition.

Ms. GALLAGHER: To say that same-sex couples are married and that they have a civil right to be married implies that marriage really has nothing to do with this ancient task and that people who have this belief are bigots.

(Soundbite of people cheering)

SOLOMON: At a rally last night, hundreds of people crammed inside a church in Montclair to celebrate the partial victory. Garden State Equality, a statewide gay rights group, pledged to continue the fight in the legislature.

(Soundbite of applause and chanting)

SOLOMON: The court gave the state legislature 180 days to act. A Christian conservative group, the New Jersey Family Policy Council, has pledged to work for a Constitutional ban that would upend the decision. But most legislators on both sides of the aisle have expressed a distaste for anything that would change the New Jersey constitution.

For NPR News, I'm Nancy Solomon.

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