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Lawful unions

As California prepares to review gay marriage, a New Jersey court upholds the rights of all committed couples.

October 27, 2006

THE NEW JERSEY Supreme Court cut through much of the hedging and hand-wringing over same-sex marriage on Wednesday with a principled decision upholding the equal rights of all committed couples. Call it "marriage," "civil union" or anything else, the court told state lawmakers, just as long as you afford everyone the same financial benefits and legal rights.

The ruling is straightforward. The state may not, consistent with its Constitution, designate which pairs of adults are afforded special privileges under the law and which are not, if the only difference between them is sexual orientation. Let the political process sort out the terminology, which may well prove to spur the most emotional and contentious debate (one which, right on cue, President Bush and other politicians pandering to social conservatives tried to whip up against "activist judges"). The court said that, in the eyes of the law, there is no cultural, religious or traditional rationale for denying equal protection.

This approach is almost shockingly rational, and it offers a potential way out for other states as they wrestle with the issue. Only Massachusetts has recognized same-sex marriage, but that may be because it's one of only a few states ready to make that cultural leap. It's not now and should never be the government's business how you refer to someone's partner at a cocktail party. But whether a person can visit his or her loved one in the hospital, or receive death benefits, or pay taxes the same way heterosexual married couples do -- those things, at least in New Jersey, are protected. They should be protected everywhere.

As Justice Barry T. Albin noted in his opinion: "There is something distinctly unfair about the state recognizing the right of same-sex couples to raise natural and adopted children and placing foster children with those couples, and yet denying those children the financial and social benefits and privileges available to children in heterosexual households."

Gay marriage remains at the top of legislative and court agendas across the nation. The California Supreme Court will soon decide whether state laws limiting marriage to heterosexual couples deprive homosexuals of a fundamental right. New Jersey's high court, often cited by legal scholars as among the nation's most trenchant, has carved a sound intellectual path forward for justices here.

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