“If terms be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things.” - Confucius
Tomorrow the New Jersey Legislature is expected to vote on a bill establishing civil unions for same-sex couples, which would grant them all the same rights, privileges and protections as opposite-sex marriages. All except one.
In late October, the Supreme Court of New Jesey ruled that “the State must provide to committed same-sex couples, on equal terms, the full rights and benefits enjoyed by heterosexual married couples” and gave the legislature 180 days in which to comply. Still, the majority left it to lawmakers to determine whether civil recognition for same sex relationships can be called “marriage” or should be set up under a “parallel statutory structure,” citing customary judicial deference, and also arguing that while the New Jersey constitution compels equality, it does not require same-sex “marriage.”
Does it matter? What is the difference between a civil union and a marriage, if the civil union entails “the full rights and benefits” of marriage? The answer lies in the question itself. Calling this package of rights “marriage” for one group and “civil unions” for another group implies that the second group is not entitled to the preferred term; it implies that the term “marriage” is itself a right, which under the court’s own reasoning must therefore be extended to same-sex couples as required by New Jersey’s equal protection laws.
All three same-sex marriage rulings this year in New York, New Jersey and Washington State, as well as Massachusetts in 2003, recognized that “marriage” includes tangible as well as intangible benefits. Indeed, the Massachusetts court concluded, “[M]arriage is at once a deeply personal commitment to another human being and a highly public celebration of the ideals of mutuality, companionship, intimacy, fidelity and family….Because it fulfils yearnings for security, safe haven and connection that express our common humanity, civil marriage is an esteemed institution, and the decision whether and whom to marry is among life’s momentous acts of self-definition.”
The court added, "The dissimilitude between the terms ‘civil marriage’ and ‘civil union’ is not innocuous; it is a considered choice of language that reflects a demonstrable assigning of same-sex couples to second-class status."
As one of the plaintiffs in the New Jersey case wrote to the court, “When I am asked about my relationship, I want my words to match my life, so I want to say I am married and know that my relationship is immediately understood, and after that nothing more needs be explained.”
The New Jersey Legislature should reject the civil union bill tomorrow and hold out for a marriage bill that will fulfill its constitutional obligations to same sex couples.