Stage Set for New Marriage Battle in N.J.

Gay couples who sued New Jersey for the right to marry are setting the stage for another court battle two months after the state Senate turned down a bill to legalize same-sex marriage.

On Thursday, a motion was filed on behalf of the plaintiffs in the original Lewis v. Harris lawsuit, which resulted in a New Jersey Supreme Court decision that forced the state to grant all the benefits of marriage to committed gay couples.

Though the 2006 ruling led to the legalization of civil unions for same-sex couples, gay rights activists insist that the civil union remedy enacted by the legislature has not fulfilled the guarantee of equality promised in the court's 2006 order.

"The New Jersey Supreme Court ordered equality for same-sex couples when it decided our marriage lawsuit in 2006, and the legislature has failed to meet that crystal-clear obligation," said Hayley Gorenberg, deputy legal director at Lambda Legal, which filed suit Thursday on behalf of the Lewis v. Harris plaintiffs.

When the Supreme Court issued its ruling nearly four years ago, it left it to the legislature to figure out how to give same-sex couples rights equal to opposite-sex couples.

The immediate result was a civil union law enacted in December 2006, which same-sex marriage opponents say settled the issue once and for all.

"In New Jersey, same sex couples have every benefit and right without exception that the State of New Jersey grants to heterosexual married couples," noted Catholic bishops of New Jersey in a letter distributed to churches last November.

Lambda Legal's Gorenberg, however, says civil unions are "a failed legislative experiment in providing equality in New Jersey."

"Marriage equality is the only solution," she argued.

Similarly, the Civil Union Review Commission appointed by the New Jersey legislature determined in a December 2008 report that civil unions fall short of the court-mandated equality for same-sex couples, prompting a push for a marriage equality law that ended in defeat this past January.

By a 20-14 vote, New Jersey's Senate turned down the bill to legalize gay marriage, leaving New Hampshire and Vermont as the only states to have approved of gay marriage legislatively.

To date, only five states recognize gay marriage. Three of the states – Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts – came to recognize them through court action.

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