Civil Unions Currently Legal, Not Gay Marriage

TRENTON, N.J. (CBSNewYork/AP) — Lawyers for gay couples and New Jersey’s government laid out their cases to a judge Thursday in a suit by six gay couples calling for gay marriage to be made legal in the state.

They also want same-sex marriages from other states recognized in New Jersey.

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New Jersey now allows only civil unions for same-sex couples.

Judge Mary Jacobson gave both sides time to provide more information in writing and said that she would not rule on the issue before September.

Kevin Jesperson, a state assistant attorney general, told the judge that the federal government should recognize New Jersey civil unions as the equivalent to marriage and give registered couples access to Social Security survivor benefits, joint tax filing and other federal benefits. If federal agencies don’t do that, he said, the plaintiffs should sue them, not the state.

Garden State Equality and the couples claim New Jersey is discriminating against them after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a ban on giving federal benefits to married same-sex couples.

By the court’s count, there are around 1,000 federal rights same-sex couples in New Jersey are not entitled to.

“For one reason and one reason only, which is that even though they can be in a civil union, they can’t say they’re married,” Garden State Equality attorney Lawrence Lustberg said outside court.

“Issues like healthcare, domestic support, tax benefits, the right to be buried together,” Lustberg added to CBS 2’s Adriana Diaz.

As WCBS 880’s Levon Putney reported, Lustberg argued in court that the state’s laws have to allow for equal protection but currently do not.

“As a result of New Jersey’s discrimination, federal rights are denied them,” he said.

The plaintiffs are asking for a summary judgment.

Also outside court Thursday were those who oppose legalizing gay marriage.

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“Homosexual marriage doesn’t reflect the moral law, the moral tradition of this country,” John Tomicki with the League of American Families, a state coalition against gay marriage, told Putney. “You want to do it, you’ll have to do it with a Constitutional amendment.”

In 2006, New Jersey’s Supreme Court ruled that gay couples should be treated equally under the law as married couples. The Legislature responded by creating civil unions, which seek to give the legal protections of marriage without calling it marriage.

Six couples and several of their children sued in 2011, saying civil unions fall short of that promise. That case is at least several months from going to trial.

But last month the couples asked the court to make a judgment before trial in light of the June U.S. Supreme Court ruling that invalidated key parts of the Defense of Marriage Act, which had banned the federal government from recognizing gay marriage.

They say there’s a new urgency because state law is blocking citizens from receiving full federal benefits.

Jesperson said it’s not clear yet to what degree that will happen since federal agencies are just starting to roll out regulations for how they’ll treat same-sex couples.

Governor Chris Christie opposes gay marriage but has said he would allow voters to decide. The state’s attorney argued in court for the issue to be put to vote.

Last year, the New Jersey Legislature passed a bill recognizing gay marriage. Christie vetoed it.

Thirteen states in the U.S. have same-sex marriages, with New Jersey and Pennsylvania the only Northeastern states not among them.

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