One day after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Texas law banning gay sex, an attorney for seven gay couples argued in a New Jersey courtroom that marriages between same-sex couples should be legally recognized by the state. A deputy attorney general countered that the issue belongs in the
legislature, not the courts. Superior court judge Linda Feinberg ordered both sides to file additional legal arguments in the case and said she would not rule for at least two months.
Friday's hearing was on a state motion to dismiss a lawsuit filed by the same-sex couples. Deputy Attorney General Patrick DeAlmeida said that while the state does not doubt the sincerity of committed relationships of same-sex couples, there is nothing in the New Jersey constitution that guarantees their right to marriage. "The right to maintain relationships is not being interfered with," DeAlmeida said.
David S. Buckel, the attorney for the couples, argued that the marriages should be allowed under the constitution's guarantees of equality and privacy. Buckel said Thursday's U.S. Supreme Court ruling is heartening to those favoring equal marriage rights. "The federal Supreme Court sent a very strong message that the day has come when lesbian and gay couples are due dignity and respect," Buckel
The New Jersey lawsuit was filed last year by seven couples who have all been in their committed relationships for at least 10 years. Four of the couples have children. One couple, Cindy Meneghin and Maureen Killian, were in the courtroom Friday with their two children, Joshua, 10, and Sarah, 8. Meneghin said she and Killian have been together for 28 years and that their family is like any other in their neighborhood in Morris County, Butler. "Our neighbors see us as committed to each other like any other couple, but we don't have the same rights and protections they have," she said.
Feinberg asked the attorneys to present arguments on whether marriage is a fundamental right for same-sex couples and whether it should be provided with protection under the law. The judge told Buckel that previous court rulings have held that same-sex marriage is not a fundamental right. The judge also asked Buckel why the matter shouldn't be considered by the legislature. Buckel argued that because the case is about constitutional content, it belongs in the courts. "To take the right to marry and narrow it down to same-sex is dead wrong," Buckel said.
Feinberg also repeatedly asked the lawyers about a court case involving employees of Rutgers University who were seeking benefits for their same-sex partners that were given to heterosexual couples. The judge said she did not need to hear testimony in the case or arguments from those groups opposed to same-sex marriages.
Lawmakers in Canada recently decided to legalize marriage for gay couples. While California, Hawaii, and Vermont have extended some economic benefits granted to married couples to same-sex couples, no state in the country has legalized same-sex marriage.
Thirty-seven states and the federal government have adopted measures that strictly define marriage as a union between a man and a woman. Bills introduced in the New Jersey legislature would declare same-sex marriages void and not recognize those from other jurisdictions. "There are two bills in the legislature," DeAlmeida said. "They are the proper body to be engaged in this debate."