Jersey Revives Same-Sex Marriage Debate

Catherine Hecht, 37, of Jersey City, and her partner, Beth Achenbach, 39, are planning a small, private civil union ceremony to take advantage of a New Jersey state law -- taking effect today -- giving gays and lesbians marriage rights.

The New Jersey state law gives same-sex couples forming civil unions all 800 benefits and obligations that New Jersey state law grants to married spouses. It also prohibits discrimination against people in civil unions.

However, the law confers none of the federal benefits of marriage and is not valid in other states.

"You have to take what you can get when you get it," said Hecht, executive director for the Jersey City Lesbian and Gay Outreach.

"It's creating a second-class citizenship, which there's no reason to do," Hecht said, noting that most people aren't familiar with the term "civil union," and that can create problems with insurance, hospitals and job applications.

Same-Sex Civil Unions Slowly Sweeping States

Currently, Massachusetts is the only state to allow same-sex marriages. Vermont, Connecticut and now New Jersey have civil union laws.

In 2006, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to receive the same state-level benefits, protections and obligations as opposite-sex married couples. 

As a result of the ruling, the New Jersey legislature voted in late 2006 to offer civil unions to same-sex couples, a law which takes effect today. 

Gay rights activists in Connecticut, however, are pushing for legislation this session that would allow same-sex couples to marry. Connecticut's civil union system is also being challenged in court by advocates of same-sex marriage.

"What's happening now is our country is trying to find consensus on the issue of partnership recognition for same-sex couples," said Marti Rouse, national field director for the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.

"States like New Jersey are taking big steps in the right direction toward full equality," said Rouse. "But there's no full equality until there's marriage equality."

Is America Ready for Same-Sex Marriage?

Rouse said that a majority of Americans, while still uncomfortable with homosexuality, believe that same-sex couples should be granted rights and benefits. However, Rouse said, many Americans are hung up with granting full marriage rights, equating marriage with religion.

"Marriage is a legal term," said Rouse. "When more Americans understand that marriage is mostly a legal term, we hope that the institution of marriage will extend marriage equality to same-sex couples so that they can be fully protected under the law," said Rouse.

The Human Rights Campaign estimates there are 45 states that already have statutes or state constitutional amendments that limit marriage to a man and a woman.

But it points to other states that may pass civil union legislation this year, including Oregon, New Hampshire and Hawaii. Rouse said that New York Gov. Elliot Spitzer has also promised to introduce marriage equality legislation this year.

The 2008 Presidential Election and Same-Sex Marriage Rights

While gay advocates are optimistic about state legislation, the Human Rights Campaign has yet to endorse a 2008 presidential candidate.

"There are currently no leading presidential candidates that support full marriage equality," said Rouse. "But many of them have expressed support for benefits, which is at least a step in the right direction."

Hecht agrees that there are few candidates in the 2008 presidential campaign so far who show much promise for giving gays and lesbians marriage rights.

"Unfortunately, political candidates are fearful of a backlash among voters when it comes to gay rights," said Hecht. "I have a problem with any candidate that runs and is not inclusive of the gay and lesbian community."

"I hope that at least one of the candidates will think about the gay and lesbian community because we need to be included," she said. "Our issues are just as important as issues within the African-American community, unemployment, the war."

Same-Sex Marriage: A Political Wedge Issue?

However, Rouse said that he fears that as the 2008 presidential election campaign heats up, the candidates will use gay marriage as a wedge issue.

During the 2004 election campaign, the politics of gay marriage were pushed to the fore when President Bush endorsed a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.

2004 Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., said he supported civil unions and equal protection for gays and lesbians but opposed same-sex marriage.

"The lives of gay Americans are used as political pawns again and again," said Rouse.

"Same-sex couples are trying to raise their families, are struggling against discrimination every day and by using these people to further their own political causes, their lives and needs will be distorted," said Rouse.

New Jersey's History of Gay Politics

The state of New Jersey has some growing gay-friendly communities, including Ashbury Park and Jersey City.

In Jersey City, the city hall is closed for Presidents Day, but the clerk's office will open for about an hour tonight at 7:00 p.m. in order to accommodate a few same-sex couples who plan on applying for their civil union license.

Hecht expects anywhere from 80 to 100 people to come to Jersey City to apply for a civil union license and celebrate the new law.

However, New Jersey wasn't always known for accommodating same-sex partnerships.

Many gays and lesbians were disappointed to learn that former New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey hid his homosexuality in order to further his political career.

McGreevey resigned as governor of New Jersey in 2004 after announcing that he was gay and had an affair with a male staffer.

During a book tour, McGreevey said he opposed same-sex marriage because he feared that supporting it would kill his political career.

"I was proud to be against gay marriage because that's where I thought a majority of New Jerseyans were," he told the Associated Press at the time.

"I did not want to be identified as being gay, and it was the safe place to be. That's successful politics."