Civil Unions in New Jersey: The Turnpike to Progress

December 15th, 2006



Last night, the New Jersey Legislature voted to allow civil unions between same-sex couples. That’s a real step forward for gays and lesbians in that state, and it should be both noted and applauded.

The civil unions bill moved through both the Assembly and the Senate within 10 days of its introduction and passed on extremely solid footing: 56-19 in the Assembly and 23-12 in the House. The bill stemmed from the Supreme Court of New Jersey’s ruling (announced in October, fewer than 2 weeks before the ’06 election) in Lewis v. Harris that under the state constitution’s equal protection clause, committed same-sex couples in New Jersey are entitled to the same legal protections as heterosexual married couples. The court had left it up to the legislature to determine what to call this new relationships status (i.e. “marriage” or “civil union”).

New Jersey’s relatively uncomplicated legislative decision to join Vermont and Connecticut in permitting civil unions is not insignificant. It marks a growing sentiment across America that same-sex couples deserve legal protections. A Third Way 800 person national poll, conducted after the November ’06 elections by Zogby and in conjunction with the Victory Fund, revealed that 65% of Americans believe that same-sex couples deserve some form of legal recognition. And, Americans are moving in a positive direction on this issue. Even since 2004, when the exit polls asked the same question, there has been a 5% increase in desire to recognize same-sex relationships.

This movement in New Jersey can’t be chalked up simply to Garden State liberalism. First, the majority of justices on the Supreme Court of New Jersey are Republican appointees. Governor Christine Todd Whitman appointed four of the seven justices. Second, the New Jersey Court was not even split on the question of whether committed same-sex couples should have the same legal protections as married couples. The three dissenting justices (who were, by the way, all Republican-appointed) wanted to go farther than the majority and assert that same-sex couples should have the right to marry.

The news is not as good everywhere. In Colorado this election, a ballot initiative giving same-sex couples domestic partnership rights failed by a 47-53% margin. Our post-election polls pointed to three challenges that progressives must meet in order to help same-sex couples win legal protections:

  • First, we must convince Americans that same-sex couples are missing basic and critical legal protections. (Not all believe it.)
  • Second, we must reassure the nation that allowing legal protections for same-sex couples does not harm or undermine marriage.
  • Third, we must help the country see that an America that extends legal protections is a stronger America, true to its core ideals and values. Or as the NJ Assembly member who sponsored the civil unions bill remarked: “In a year and a half or two years we’ll see that the world hasn’t collapsed, heterosexuals are still getting married and God hasn’t thrown fire and brimstone on us.”

Yesterday’s achievement was real, and we hope New Jersey inspires progress toward legal recognition for same-sex couples in the rest of the nation. That’s the kind of progress that makes us all proud to be “Born in the USA.”