Printed in The Star-Ledger, Jan 18, 2012
Equality, fairness and justice are the most basic of American principles. The last century especially has seen numerous episodes of Americans fighting for, and eventually receiving, their civil rights.
Yet there remain Americans for whom these principles are not fully realized. As long as we deem it acceptable for some citizens to have dissimilar rights and benefits – and by definition, lesser than those of the majority – equality, fairness and justice will elude us as a society.
There is no more striking example of this inequality than the way our laws treat same-sex couples. That is why the first Senate bill of this new legislative session – S1 – will be devoted to achieving marriage equality in New Jersey.
Marriage equality is a simple idea whose time has come. Several years ago, we established civil unions for same-sex couples in New Jersey. The law was, at the time, intended to ensure all the rights and benefits of marriage, but by a different name. Yet confusion about what a civil union means still exists, and couples are still denied the rights we supposedly established for them. Given that the intention of this law has never come to fruition for the people it was meant to benefit, it must be corrected.
Once this measure passes the Legislature with bipartisan support, I sincerely hope that Gov. Chris Christie will do the right thing and allow it to become law. His comments have indicated that he would not support such a measure – but one’s personal beliefs shouldn’t stand in the way of correcting an injustice to thousands of our neighbors, friends and family. And if he cannot raise himself to sign it, then he should not lower himself by vetoing it, and should step aside and simply let it become law by virtue of the state constitution’s 45-day waiting period.
When civil unions took effect, we were just the third state to have such a law – and only Massachusetts allowed same-sex couples the right to call their unions “marriage.” But since then, five other states (Connecticut, Iowa, New Hampshire, Vermont and New York) have taken the step to legalize same-sex marriage. And despite the hyperbole of the naysayers, the sky has not fallen. Nor will it when we enact marriage equality in New Jersey.
At least 10 countries recognize full marriage equality, including some of the most progressive, such as Belgium, Iceland, Norway and Sweden. South Africa, a country that as recently as two decades ago had state-sanctioned racial discrimination, also has recognized same-sex unions as “marriage.”
Marriage equality also is the law in Argentina, Portugal and Spain. If three of the most observantly Catholic nations in the world can recognize the union of same-sex couples as the marriages they are, there is no reason New Jersey should lag.
Just as we ask people not to impose a differing belief on others, we will not impose on their right to practice to the dictates of their conscience. The protections we are writing into the law would allow clergy and those who oppose same-sex marriage as a matter of faith to decline to perform a same-sex marriage ceremony. While marriage, at its base, may be a legal and civil construct, for many, it is a very religious and faith-based aspect, and we must respect that. Ensuring marriage quality will, in no way, jeopardize anyone’s First Amendment rights to freedom of religion.
Ultimately, we must simply respect the right of all residents to live their lives as they wish. In doing so, we can have a society more deeply grounded in one of the most long-standing and central American principles: that all people may enjoy their unalienable right to the pursuit of happiness.