The New Jersey Supreme Court has ruled that committed same-sex couples must be afforded the same rights and benefits that married couples enjoy.
The court said that although the state has passed laws offering gay and lesbian individuals important rights, such as protection from discrimination in employment, a gap still exists between the benefits that same-sex couples and heterosexual couples enjoy.
The court noted that domestic partners receive fewer workplace protections than married couples do. For example, since domestic partners fall outside the definition of family member under the New Jersey Family Leave Act, gay and lesbian employees in the state have no right to take leave to care for an ill domestic partner, the court said. In addition, the state does not require a private employer to provide health insurance coverage for an employee's domestic partner.
The court also noted that same-sex couples are denied other rights, including survivor benefits under the state's Workers' Compensation Act and back wages owed to a deceased spouse.
"The state has failed to show a public need for disparate treatment," the court wrote. "We conclude that denying to committed same-sex couples the financial and social benefits and privileges given to their married heterosexual counterparts bears no substantial relationship to a legitimate governmental purpose. We now hold that under the equal protection guarantee of Article I, Paragraph 1 of the New Jersey Constitution, committed same-sex couples must be afforded on equal terms the same rights and benefits enjoyed by married opposite-sex couples."
The court left it to state lawmakers to decide whether to grant the same rights and benefits through marriage or civil unions.
"The equal protection requirement of Article I, Paragraph 1 leaves the Legislature with two apparent options," the court wrote. "The Legislature could simply amend the marriage statutes to include same-sex couples, or it could create a separate statutory structure, such as a civil union, as Connecticut and Vermont have done."
To date, Massachusetts is the only state that allows same-sex couples to marry.