TRENTON, N.J.New Jersey’s Supreme Court said homosexual couples are entitled to the same legal rights as married heterosexual couples.

The ruling could make New Jersey the second state, after Massachusetts, to legalize same-sex “marriage.” The court ruled 4-3 Oct. 25 that the state’s constitutional guarantee of equal rights applies to homosexual couples.

But it fell short of ordering legislators to permit same-sex “marriage.” Rather, the court is giving the Legislature 180 days to expand the state’s marriage statute to include same-sex couples or to pass a civil-union law that would provide such couples with the same benefits as marriage.

All seven judges agreed that the state’s constitution guarantees equal rights, but they disagreed on how to proceed.

“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,” wrote Justice Barry Albin for the majority. “Although courts can ensure equal treatment, they cannot guarantee social acceptance, which must come through the evolving ethos of a maturing society.”

The dissenting justices, however, argued that the decision did not go far enough, saying that only marriage would allow same-sex couples to achieve equal benefits.

“By excluding same-sex couples from civil marriage, the State declares that it is legitimate to differentiate between their commitments and the commitments of heterosexual couples,” wrote Justice Deborah Poritz in her dissent, which was joined by two other justices. “Ultimately, the message is that what same-sex couples have is not as important or as significant as ‘real’ marriage, that such lesser relationships cannot have the same meaning of marriage.”

Within minutes of the decision, three state legislators working with a homosexual rights organization introduced a bill demanding same-sex “marriage.”

The ruling is similar to a 1999 decision by the Vermont Supreme Court that resulted in a civil union law. Massachusetts since 2003 has permitted same-sex “marriage.” Similar cases are pending in California, Connecticut, Iowa and Maryland. Nineteen states have constitutional amendments barring same-sex “marriage,” and 26 others have statutes limiting marriage to a man and a woman. Connecticut and Vermont allow civil unions.

Homosexual activists and transgendered rights groups seem buoyed by the decision. The American Civil Liberties Union praised the ruling.

“Today’s court decision is a giant step toward ending the unfairness that same-sex couples face in marriage,” said Matt Coles, Director of the ACLU Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Project.

Yet, not all homosexual groups were pleased by the news.

“We would not be happy if they gave it another name,” said Pete Frycki, vice president of the Trenton Gay and Lesbian Civic Association. “We are looking to be fully equal and we will not stop until that equality is fulfilled.”

Groups opposing same-sex “marriage,” while pleased that the decision was returned to the Legislature, were concerned about the direction that such legislation might take.

Newark Archbishop John Myers expressed disappointment in the ruling.

“I am saddened by the New Jersey Supreme Court’s decision in Lewis v. Harris, which seeks to force the state to treat as marriages or the equivalent of marriages forms of sexual association that are inherently non-marital,” said Archbishop Myers.

He called it “a terrible blow to the institution of marriage and the family, to the principles of democratic self-government and religious freedom, and to child well-being in our state.”

The decision, coming as it did just before the mid-term elections, also drew attention from politicians. President George Bush highlighted the issue while campaigning in Iowa.

“Yesterday in New Jersey, we had another activist court issue a ruling that raises doubts about the institution of marriage,” said President Bush during the luncheon. “I believe it’s a sacred institution that is critical to the health of our society and the well-being of families, and it must be defended.”

Despite the disappointment with the ruling, pro-faith and pro-family organizations seemed emboldened to unite in support of lobbying the Legislature to support marriage as between one man and one woman.

“This is a matter of policy that should be decided upon by the people’s representatives in the Legislature and not the court,” said Patrick Brannigan, executive director of the New Jersey Catholic Conference. “We’ll work with members of the Legislature to ensure that marriage is not redefined. We’ll be reaching out to people of all faiths — Jewish, Muslim, Christian — to ensure that, even if it means that we need to vote for an amendment to the state constitution.”

Future Concerns

Civil rights organizations that support the family decried the decision, saying that it ties the hands of the Legislature. The president of the New Jersey Family Policy Council feels the court overstepped its bounds.

“Unless the Legislature is willing to challenge the court, it doesn’t leave many options except what to call the unions,” said Len Deo, president of the New Jersey Family Policy Council. “There isn’t much wiggle room.”

Deo said he was very concerned about specific language in the court’s decision that he said could impact the rights of the Church.

“However the Legislature may act, same-sex couples will be free to call their relationships by the name they choose and to sanctify their relationships in religious ceremonies in houses of worship,” reads the opinion.

“From my reading of the opinion, the court is telling churches what they can or cannot do in terms of conducting marriages,” said Demetrios Stratis, an attorney with the Alliance Defense Fund. “That is very troubling.”

“The statute doesn’t say ‘in houses of worship that recognize same-sex marriage,’” noted Deo. “What happens when a same-sex couple comes to Father Joe and says that the law says they are to be treated equally?”

Popular theology of the body speaker and author Christopher West provided a theological framework for the debate.

“What is it that a man and a woman can do that two men or two women cannot do?” asked West, research fellow at the Theology of the Body Institute in Westchester, Pa. “If we can find the answer to this question, we will discover what marriage is, and then we will in turn realize why it is absolutely nonsensical to entertain the question of same-sex ‘marriage.’”

West quoted St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, Chapter 5, to compare the one-flesh union between man and wife to the one-flesh union of Christ and the Church.

“The way we understand the sexual relationship has a direct bearing on our Christology and ecclesiology,” said West. “The symbolic effect of obliterating the sexual difference is that we fail to recognize the main clue that God has given us in creation that we as a human race are called to communion with God in Christ. Confusing the meaning of sexual difference blinds us to the ultimate meaning of our existence, which is communion with God.”

“Much is at stake in this debate,” concluded West. “We must not let emotion or sentimentality cloud sound reasoning.”

Tim Drake is based in

St. Joseph, Minnesota.