The Voices They Did Not Hear: Lambda Legal Condemns New Jersey Legislature For Rushing to Enact Discriminatory Statute

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Legislators are in such a rush that they are trampling the very democratic process that the Court said it was trying to respect.
December 13, 2006

(New York, New Jersey, December 13, 2006) — With a vote scheduled for Thursday in both the New Jersey Senate and Assembly on a civil union bill, Lambda Legal says the legislature acted too fast to allow a full debate of the issue of marriage for same-sex couples.


“Legislators are in such a rush that they are trampling the very democratic process that the Court said it was trying to respect,” said David Buckel, Marriage Project Director at Lambda Legal and lead attorney on the lawsuit that resulted in the New Jersey Supreme Court decision in October. “The Court’s decision in Lewis v. Harris gave the New Jersey legislature an historic opportunity to deliver equality, dignity and fairness to families. There is no reason to enact civil unions other than to send the message that our families are not worthy of equality. That unprincipled message harms same-sex couples, their children and ultimately all of New Jersey.”


Lambda Legal said the Court explained that it did not want to “short-circuit the democratic process from running its course,” and gave the legislature a full six months, until April 23, 2007 for that process to take place. A marriage equality bill was introduced on November 20th, and never reached a committee hearing. But a civil union bill introduced on December 4th has already passed through two committee hearings and is up for a vote only ten days later.


“The committee hearings were a sham. It was difficult on short notice for families to get time off work and arrange child-care, and then the Assembly committee announced that they were planning to pass the bill through even before hearing testimony. On the Senate committee side, testimony was cut off before hearing from even one same-sex couple,” added Buckel. “ We intend to raise up the voices of same-sex couples and our allies today and every day until they are heard.”


Muted Voices

Lambda Legal is providing testimony that should have been heard by legislators had they allowed a more full debate of the issue of marriage for same-sex couples.


Lambda Legal Plaintiffs Chris Lodewyks and Craig Hutchinson:

“In over 35 years together we have attended many weddings of our friends and families, with some of them getting married again and again. Recently, we find ourselves attending some of their children’s weddings. Each time, we experience the joy and celebration of all in attendance. However, deep in our hearts we are saddened and hurt by the fact that, despite our love and commitment to one another and our many years of building a wonderful relationship, we are not allowed the same respect that comes with the word marriage. Would you prefer to present your relationship to the world as a ‘civil union’ instead? The answer is in your heart, and we ask that you individually look at this issue as a human being and as a leader.”


Rev. Traci West, Professor of Christian Ethics and African American Studies at Drew University:

“Prejudice, discrimination, relegating the human worth of some persons to second class status below others has so often been more popular and comfortable than equality in the laws of our society (and churches). But I implore you not to use your power to again legislate prejudice and discrimination, sanctioning bigotry and oppression, over marriage legislation that supports the equal human dignity and equal rights and responsibilities of New Jersey citizens, whether they are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or heterosexual. Although the just cause of honoring the equal human worth, equal rights and responsibilities of citizens may not seem politically expedient, you have an opportunity to advance this unfulfilled promise of our democracy, instead of setting it back one more time, with this legislation.”


Lambda Legal Plaintiffs Karen and Marcye Nicholson-McFadden:

“When our two children say, ‘Why won’t the government let you marry?’ the only honest answer is devastating. How do we explain that our state government thinks it’s OK to treat us differently because we are gay? The message is clear that there is something about us and our family that is less valuable or less deserving. Barring their parents from marriage tells our children that New Jersey believes it’s OK to discriminate. To us this is about so much more than language. It’s about no longer being barred from one of life’s most significant rites of passage. It’s about being able to participate in real marriage, not some pretend version. Civil unions are not marriage. We’ve yet to find the straight couple willing to exchange their marriage for a civil union. Would you?”


Lyn Headley-Deavours, Justice Missioner for the Episcopal Diocese of Newark:

“I am a woman of color in an interracial marriage. As late as 1967, my husband and I could not have legally married or had our marriage recognized in the sixteen states that still had anti-miscegenation laws. The denial of the right to civil marriage based on a single characteristic makes discrimination legal against anyone possessing that characteristic, as when the criterion of race was used. Denying civil marriage to same-sex couples and substituting civil union creates a second-class system that opens the door to different treatment in a relationship alleged to be equal to marriage.”


Lambda Legal Plaintiffs Mark Lewis and Dennis Winslow:

“Marriage is omnipresent in our lives as citizens, everywhere we turn and everywhere reminding us of how we are fenced out by the government. Recently I felt the sting of this label at my college reunion, when old classmates asked at least twenty times ‘are you married?’ It is one of the most common questions in adult conversation, key to establishing an understanding of others. It was what people wanted to know about me first of all after a 20-year separation. And for good reason. The word ‘married’ holds and conveys great meaning, like no other word can, about one of the most common aspects of our lives: the essential personal identity that comes with a committed and responsible adult relationship. When asked ‘are you married’ time and again, I have to answer ‘no, but…’ and launch into a lengthy explanation that can never capture my commitment to Dennis. Only the word ‘marriage’ does that in this culture. Every elaboration invites the reaction that our relationship is of a lesser caliber than my heterosexual friends’ marriages. Imagine my humiliation, having to be the one who points to the badge of inferiority the State pins on me.”


In its October decision the New Jersey Supreme Court unanimously found that same-sex couples in New Jersey must have equal protection under the law and be granted the rights and responsibilities of marriage, but gave the legislature the opportunity to correct the violation. If the legislature chose civil unions over marriage, the Court left open the question of whether or not that choice would be constitutional, reasoning that the legislature should have the chance to explain its decision. The Court’s deadline expires on April 23, 2007.


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Lisa Hardaway 212-809-8585 ext.266


Lambda Legal is a national organization committed to achieving full recognition of the civil rights of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, transgender people and those with HIV through impact litigation, education and public policy work.

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