Sweeping Gay Marriage Lawsuit in New Jersey Aims for U.S. History

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June 26, 2002

In an historic case aiming to legalize marriage for same-sex couples in New Jersey -- and therefore advance the rights of these couples beyond domestic partnership benefits or Vermont’s Civil Union law -- seven lesbian and gay couples filed a lawsuit against the State of New Jersey today in Hudson County Superior Court in Jersey City. The couples, declaring they were tired of paying first-class taxes while being treated like second-class citizens, demanded the state allow them to marry just like their heterosexual friends, family, and neighbors.

Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund (Lambda Legal), the nation’s oldest and largest legal organization seeking full equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people and people with HIV or AIDS, has agreed to represent the New Jersey couples. Previously in New Jersey, Lambda Legal represented James Dale in his lawsuit against the Boy Scouts. The New Jersey Supreme Court sided with Dale, but was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Today’s lawsuit on behalf of the seven lesbian and gay couples, captioned Lewis et. al. v. Harris et. al., is based solely on the New Jersey Constitution. Therefore, the New Jersey Supreme Court will have the last word in the case.

Leading up the list of plaintiff couples are Mark Lewis and Dennis Winslow, two Episcopalian pastors from Union City, Hudson County who have been a couple for 10 years.

“The tragedies of September 11th were a painful reminder of what discrimination in marriage means, as we watched gay and lesbian survivors being excluded from financial safety nets and other support because they weren’t married to their lost partners” said Ruth Harlow, legal director at Lambda. “This was a cruel injustice and these plaintiffs sue to ensure that it doesn’t happen again, either in times of national tragedy or in day to day life,” Harlow added.

The plaintiff couples have been together between ten and thirty years. Five of the seven couples have children. All of them want and need the legal security that comes with marriage but has been denied to them.

“Civil marriage is the legal safety net that our society provides to support committed couples, and same-sex partners need the rights and responsibilities that come with it just as much as heterosexual couples,” said David Buckel, Lambda Senior Staff Attorney and lead attorney on the lawsuit. “This case provides New Jersey with the opportunity to do what’s fair by providing legal equality to loving and committed same-sex couples across the State,” he added.

In addition to Mark Lewis and Dennis Winslow, the plaintiff couples in the case are: Karen and Marcye Nicholson-McFadden, who have been together 12 years and are raising a three-year-old son; Saundra Toby-Heath and Alicia Heath-Toby, who have been together 13 years and are leaders in Newark’s Liberation In Truth Unity Fellowship church; Craig Hutchison and Chris Lodewyks, who have been a couple for 30 years and live in Pompton Lakes; Marilyn Maneely and Diane Marini, a southern New Jersey couple with five children in their family who have been together for 11 years; Sarah and Suyin Lael, a 12 year couple raising a four-year old daughter; and Maureen Kilian and Cindy Meneghin, a couple of 27 years with a nine-year-old son and seven-year-old daughter.

Mark Lewis and Dennis Winslow stressed that the couples were seeking equal treatment from the government, not religious rights or approval. “We get moral approval from our church and those who love us; what we need from our government isn’t approval, but equality in legal rights and responsibilities,” said Mark.

Karen and Marcye Nicholson-McFadden pointed out how unfair it is to have the same tax obligations as other Americans but not the same right to marry. Karen Nicholson-McFadden asked: “How can it be that we have to pay the same taxes as everybody else but don’t get the same legal rights?”

“These couples are your family, your friends and your neighbors,” Lambda’s David Buckel said. “Why should the state prevent them from making the unique commitment to one another that is marriage?” he added.

Marriage is such a huge legal institution, with so many legal protections attached, that the words “husband,” “wife,” “spouse,” or some form of the word “marry” appear in more than 850 separate provisions of New Jersey law. Beyond legal rights and responsibilities, marriage is an enormous part of day-to-day life and is the most common way that couples prove their enduring commitment to each other.

“We want to say `we’re married’ and have our community instantly understand the kind of loving relationship that we have - that we’re in it for the long haul, through thick and thin,” said Saundra Toby-Heath. Saundra’s partner, Alicia Heath-Toby, added: “We shouldn’t have to jump through a million hoops to prove who we are to each other, and even then not be treated as equal to other couples.”

After filing the lawsuit, the plaintiff couples and Lambda Legal appeared at a morning press conference in Newark, in northern New Jersey near New York City, and at an afternoon press conference in Cherry Hill, in southern New Jersey near Philadelphia. Joining the plaintiff couples were the leadership of the state’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersexed community, including the New Jersey Lesbian and Gay Coalition, the New Jersey Stonewall Democrats, the New Jersey Log Cabin Republicans, and Jon and Michael Galluccio, the New Jersey couple who several years ago won a landmark case in the state allowing same-sex couples to adopt.

Also joining the plaintiff couples: The New Jersey chapter of the National Organization for Women, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, clergy leaders from several religious denominations, and other civil rights leaders.

Lambda attorneys on the case are Ruth Harlow, David Buckel and Adam Aronson. Lawrence S. Lustberg and Risa E. Kaufman of Gibbons, DelDeo, Dolan, Griffinger & Vecchione, one of New Jersey’s largest and most prestigious law firms, are cooperating attorneys for Lambda Legal.

U.S. news organizations:

Steven Goldstein, cell (917) 449-8918
LGBT Community news organizations:
Bob Pileggi, cell (646) 246-5404
International news organizations:
Theresa Jefferson, cell (917) 656-4728



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