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NJ judge: Lawsuit seeking same-sex marriage over civil unions can proceed

NJ judge: Lawsuit seeking same-sex marriage over civil unions can proceed

TRENTON, N.J. — A New Jersey Superior Court judge on Friday ruled that a lawsuit filed by the state’s largest LGBT advocacy group, which seeks to force the state to recognize same-sex marriage, can go forward.

Garden State Equality and seven same-sex couples have sued Attorney General Paula Dow and other state officials, asserting that the civil-union designation created by the 2006 law violates their equal protection and due process rights and relegates them to treatment as second-class citizens.

If the law creating civil unions does not give same-sex couples the same protections as married heterosexual couples, it has to be examined as to whether it is constitutional, Mercer County Assignment Judge Linda Feinberg said during a hearing in Trenton this afternoon.

But in dismissing three counts of the complaint, Feinberg also said there is no fundamental right to same-sex marriage under the state Constitution. One count of the suit — a claim that the civil union law does not give them equal protection — remains.

She noted same-sex couples complain civil unions, created in New Jersey in 2006, still don’t give them the same benefits as marriage in situations such as health benefits sharing and health care decisions.

“I don’t think that the court can remain silent and take no action if…the result is that those benefits are not equal in the protections,” Feinberg said.

In 2006, the New Jersey Supreme Court in 2006 said same-sex couple were entitle to the same benefits and rights as married heterosexual couples, but left it up to the state legislature to decide whether that should come through marriage or something else.

Lawmakers then enacted a law allowing gay couples to form civil unions.

But plaintiffs say the state’s civil unions fall short of creating equality for same-sex couples as ordered by the state Supreme Court.

In many instances, they said in court documents, they cannot make emergency decisions for their partners in hospitals and their employers refuse to extend health benefits to their partners.

Steven Goldstein, chairman of Garden State Equality, called Feinberg’s ruling “a sweet moment … It is time for the state of New Jersey to end the evil experiment of civil unions that is failing same-sex couples.”

In January 2010, the state Senate defeated an effort to legalize same-sex marriage.

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