On the heels of landmark legislation in New York that allows same-sex couples the right to marry, the fight for equal rights in this state will soon be heading to New Jersey's courts.
On Wednesday, New York law firm Lambda Legal filed a lawsuit in Superior Court of Mercer County that seeks marriage equality on behalf of Garden State Equality, a statewide LGBT advocacy organization, and seven same-sex couples who have been harmed from the unequal civil union system, according to Lambda Legal.
"I think there is real momentum for these rights currently in the Tri-State area, but at this point New Jersey stands alone in denying same-sex couples the right to marry," said Lambda Deputy Legal Director Hayley Gorenberg. "Obviously we think all of these couples should have equal access to the rights of other couples, and of course, the right to marry. Other states in the area and across the country have seen and understood that equality should be for everybody."
In 2002, Lambda Legal filed the case, Lewis v. Harris, which sought marriage equality on behalf of seven New Jersey couples, including Dayton couple Sarah and Suyin Lael. The case was heard by the New Jersey Supreme Court in 2006. The court ruled unanimously that same-sex couples must be provided all the benefits of marriage, although it did not mandate that marriage was specifically required. The state legislature was given 180 days to provide equality, which led to the legislature passing a civil union law in Dec. 2006, followed by the issuing of civil union licenses to lesbian and gay couples in Feb. 2007.
The domestic partnership laws provide limited health care, inheritance, property rights and other rights and obligations, but does not not approach the wide array of rights and benefits afforded to married couples, according to Lambda Legal.
"By now, everybody in New Jersey knows that civil unions don't work," said Steven Goldstein, Chair and CEO of Garden State Equality via release. "Since civil unions became law in New Jersey, Garden State Equality has received reports from a multitude of civil union couples who have told us their employers refuse to provide the equal rights and benefits the civil union law mandates. It's time for the courts to fix this mess and give full marriage equality to New Jersey's same-sex couples and their children."
The suit filed Wednesday will be combining both state and federal claims and argues that the civil union law violates the New Jersey Constitution and the Fourteenth Amendment of the federal Constitution. Gorenberg said the suit seeks to address the discrimination these couples face in denial of workplace benefits and the right to speak for their partner in medical emergencies.
"Civil unions are unfair on so many levels," Gorenberg said. "Every couple joined in this suit has a story of medical access being denied because their health care provider didn't understand what a civil union is. It just logically seems different to them because it's not called a marriage."
One of the plaintiff couples in the suit are Marsha Shapiro, 56, and Louise Walpin, 57, of Monmouth Junction, who have been together for 22 years and raised four children. The couple has lived in Monmouth Junction for the last four years, and prior to that lived in Dayton for 17 years.
"We have jumped through every hoop imaginable to be recognized," Walpin said. "We were married by an ordained rabbi in 1992 and we went to Vermont to have a civil union when there was nothing legal in New Jersey. We obtained domestic partnership and when civil unions were allowed in New Jersey we were there the first day in South Brunswick. We've jumped through every hoop there is. But a heterosexual couple can meet and five minutes later decide to get married, jump on a plane to Las Vegas and get married. We can't get recognized after 22 years together."
The fight for equality goes far beyond just the status of being married, the couple said they have faced discrimination numerous times by having to constantly explain what a civil union is.
"A lot of this has to do with medical care," Shapiro said. "I had to bring Louise to Princeton Medical Center for gastrointestinal issues and the hospital staff came for registration information, as they usually do. They asked who I am to Louise and I began to explain what a civil union is and showed the hospital staff our documentation. The woman looked at me as if I had 10 heads or something. She didn't have a clue what box to check off because their software doesn't include civil unions.
"She put Louise down as being single and that's difficult to deal with. We're not single, we've been together 22 years. We've encountered this numerous times in medical settings."
The difficulties caused by civil unions also leaves same-sex couples in difficult and uncomfortable situations when interviewing for a job, according to Walpin.
"When I apply for positions I have to ask the employer if they offer civil union benefits, because many companies do not," she said. "I had to out myself right there, and I'll never know whether I didn't get any of those jobs because of my sexual orientation. Just having to ask that question takes away my privacy and leaves me open to discrimination."
Walpin said that she was recently called for jury duty and was sitting in the jury box when the judge asked the prospective jurors about their marital status.
"I had to say that I was in a civil union in front of a room full of people and that left me feeling very open," she said. "Sure enough I was dismissed, and I don't know that it had anything to do with my sexual orientation, but the fact that I have to live with that is unbelievable."
The couple said they are extremely proud and not ashamed at all to admit they are in a loving relationship with a same-sex partner, but don't feel it's something they should be made to explain repeatedly in different situations to complete strangers.
"This puts us in a situation of not having the choice to come out, when it should be an individual choice," Shapiro said."We're happily out, but in many situations we have to explain what a civil union is and it's intrusive. They don't understand what it is. They think it's some kind of business partnership. It complicates everything and takes away our privacy, and we have a right to privacy.
"We're deeply affected, profoundly hurt and disappointed that the New Jersey Constitution guarantees that no one should be discriminated against, yet here we are, over and over, discriminated against because we can't get married like everybody else."
The civil union laws have also affected the couple financially, as they deal with the astronomical cost of health care. Walpin, who carries medical insurance for their family through her employers, said she is on a year-by-year basis with civil union benefits.
"I'll be 58 by the time it comes up again and I don't know if I'll have to find another job for medical coverage," she said. "At this age that's not my best option."
This financial hardships caused by medical bills led the family to take out a second and third mortgage on their home to adequately provide medical care for their children, of which two out of the four were born with special needs.
"Our son Aaron was born with profound medical and cognitive disabilities," Shapiro said. "He had a very difficult life and we had a very difficult life making sure he had the services he needed, the special care he needed, the therapy he needed, the medication he needed to help him reach his potential. We had to minimize his pain to whatever extent we could.
"As the years went by his condition progressed, and in July of 2008 we watched him get sicker and sicker. We watched him experience more and more pain, until he finally died."
While at the funeral home making arrangements for Aaron, who was 21 at the time of his death, the couple again had to explain what a civil union was at the lowest point of their lives.
"Louise was Aaron's second guardian but the state of New Jersey felt she was good enough to be that, but we couldn't be married," Shapiro said. "We had to provide documentation to the funeral director for them to continue to work with us. We had enough to deal with and this was layered on top of it.
"No one should have to lose a child, it's the worst horror you can imagine and to have to explain our relationship at that time, it just shouldn't be. I don't have the words to describe it."
For the couple's other children, ranging in age from 27 to 34-years-old, the fight for equality means finally being able to say their parents are married.
"Our son is completing his final paperwork for his master's degree but this is something all of our children have had to deal with over and over," Walpin said. "He's in a relationship with his girlfriend and said he wants to see us get married before he does because he models his relationship after us. Our kids want to be able to say their parents are married, because they've always looked at us as married."
There is no schedule set as of yet for the suit to be heard, but Gorenberg expressed confidence that the fairness question of civil unions will be considered by the courts before granting same sex couples their equal rights.
"When you look at the interactions between these couples and doctors or with schools, they're not trying to discriminate, they're just confused," she said. "They're provided with a status that is confusing and different. People are being denied their rights because the state separates them into civil unions. That's unfair and it's not right."
For Shapiro and Walpin, finally being able to be recognized as a married couple in the eyes of the law would mean the world to them.
"We would be elated because we would no longer be treated like second-class citizens," Shapiro said. "We would no longer be deemed unworthy after all that we've been through, with the financial impact of having two special needs children. But the most important thing about getting married is that our love for one another would be validated once and for all by having marriage equality."