Wednesday, October 25, 2006

NJ S.Ct. finds same-sex marriage ban violates equal protection guarantee of state constitution

In Lewis v. Harris, released this afternoon, the New Jersey Supreme Court held that the state's statutory ban on same-sex marriage did not violate the petitioners' fundamental rights, but that it was in violation of the guarantee of Equal Protection under the New Jersey constitution.

The opinion is written in such a way that it could never be followed in Virginia. The Court cites all the protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation written into the law of New Jersey. None of this background exists in Virginia law. I doubt that the analysis in this case would make it any more likely that some day the Virginia Supreme Court will find that the statutory ban on same-sex marriage violates the Virginia Constitution.

In the opinion, the Court noted: "The State rests its case on age-old traditions, beliefs, and laws, which have defined the essential nature of marriage to be the union of a man and a woman. The long-held historical view of marriage, according to the State, provides a sufficient basis to uphold the constitutionality of the marriage statutes. Any change to the bedrock principle that limits marriage to persons of the opposite sex, the State argues, must come from the democratic process."

On the first question, the Court agreed: "Despite the rich diversity of this State, the tolerance and goodness of its people, and the many recent advances made by gays and lesbians toward achieving social acceptance and equality under the law, we cannot find that a right to same-sex marriage is so deeply rooted in the traditions, history, and conscience of the people of this State that it ranks as a fundamental right. When looking for the source of our rights under the New Jersey Constitution, we need not look beyond our borders. Nevertheless, we do take note that no jurisdiction, not even Massachusetts, has declared that there is a fundamental right to same-sex marriage under the federal or its own constitution."

On the Equal Protection question, the Court observed initially that the rational basis test of federal constitutional analysis did not apply to equal protection under the New Jersey constitution, and proceeded to frame the issue in terms that make history and tradition irrelevant. "At this point, we do not consider whether committed same-sex couples should be allowed to marry, but only whether those couples are entitled to the same rights and benefits afforded to married heterosexual couples. Cast in that light, the issue is not about the transformation of the traditional definition of marriage, but about the unequal dispensation of benefits and privileges to one of two similarly situated classes of people." Citing the many protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation, the Court concluded that there was no public interest, at least not in New Jersey, to support this different treatment.

The opinion distinguishes New Jersey from other states that "have expressed open hostility toward legally recognizing committed same-sex relationships," and includes Virginia in that list, along with Alaska, Georgia, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Texas, and Utah.

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