TRENTON, N.J. — Seven gay and lesbian New Jersey couples, along with many of their children, are going to court to try to force the state to recognize gay marriage.
The families say in their legal complaint that the state's civil union law designed to give gay couples the same legal protections as married couples has not fulfilled that promise.
One man says he was denied being able to make urgent medical decisions for his partner. Another saw his partner and children's health insurance canceled by a skeptical auditor. One woman had to jump through legal hoops to adopt the baby of her civil union.
Along with the gay advocacy groups Garden State Equality and Lambda Legal, the couples planned to announce details of the lawsuit on Wednesday. The advocacy groups provided a copy to The Associated Press on the condition that no details be published before Wednesday morning.
The lawsuit, to be filed in state court, comes less than a week after New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a law allowing gay marriage in that neighboring state. But it's the latest step in a nine-year legal battle in New Jersey.
States afford gay couples a hodgepodge of rights. New Jersey is one of seven states that offer the same legal protections of marriage, but call it either civil unions or domestic partnerships. Once New York's new law takes effect next month, six states and Washington D.C. will make full marriage available to gays. Another state recognizes gay marriages entered into elsewhere and three offer some legal protections for gay couples. But 41 have laws or constitutional amendments barring gay marriage.
New Jersey's civil union law is cast as the villain in the suit.
"The separate and inherently unequal statutory scheme singles out lesbians and gay men for inferior treatment on the basis of their sexual orientation and sex and also has a profoundly stigmatizing effect on them, their children and other lesbian and gay New Jerseyans," the claim says.
The legal filing tells the stories of seven couples — two of whom previously sued for the right to marry — and the problems they say they've faced since the state began offering civil unions in 2007.
Their lawyer, Lambda Legal's Hayley Gorenberg, said most people in places like medical offices don't want to discriminate against them, but don't understand the rights conferred through civil unions.
"People are not badly inclined toward them," she said in an interview Tuesday. "They are just flummoxed" by the civil union requirements.
Tom Davidson and Keith Heimann, of Shrewsbury, have been a couple for 24 years and have two adopted daughters. Heimann has health insurance for the family through his teaching job at Brookdale Communuity College, but says it was canceled for Davidson and the girls for months when a state-hired auditor questioned whether their civil union was legal.
Elena Quinones says she and her partner, Liz, spent about $10,000 for Liz to adopt their son Ian when Elena gave birth to him two years ago. And the Phillipsburg couple always travels with a binder that includes his birth certificate, their civil union certificate and other documents so that they can prove their relationship in places like doctors' offices. "We're still forced to justify ourselves," she said in an interview.
If they were married, she said, those problems would be gone. "When you say you're married, it's universal," she said. "You say 'civil union,' it's like you're speaking another language."
Last year, John Grant of Asbury Park was nearly killed when he was hit by a car. His partner, Danny Weiss, said hospital staff did not understand what a civil union meant and summoned Grant's sister from Delaware to make care decisions that Weiss should have been able to make.
Speaking on the radio station New Jersey 101.5 Tuesday, Gov. Chris Christie said the state would defend the civil union law. He also said he is willing to improve it if it needs more protections.
"I don't want same-sex couples to be deprived of legal rights," he said, adding, "Marriage is an institution that has centuries-old implications in both religious and cultural institutions. I believe it should remain between one man and one woman."
Len Deo, president of the New Jersey Family Policy Council, said he does not believe that judges will agree that gay couples face discrimination. He says only 12 of formal civil rights complaints have been filed by the more than 5,400 couples who have been joined in civil unions.
"Every person in the state of New Jersey has a right to marry a person of the opposite sex," he said. "The Legislature has decided that if you reject that and want to have a relationship with a person of the same sex — we are going to call two men or two women civil unions."
The civil unions law was enacted a few months after New Jersey's top court in late 2006 ordered the state to extend to gay couples the legal rights and protections that married couples receive. Lawmakers stopped short of recognizing same-sex marriages, which at that point were legal only in Massachusetts.
Gay rights groups pledged to push for full marriage rights and constantly pointed out the shortcomings of the law and the way it was carried out.
They mounted a major push to get a same-sex marriage law passed by the beginning of 2010, before Christie, a Republican who opposes gay marriage, replaced Democrat Jon Corzine as governor. But the advocates, opposed by social conservative groups and the state's Roman Catholic bishops, could not quite muster the votes to pass it.
Gay rights groups tried to get the state Supreme Court to take up the original case again last year, but the court said no, setting up the latest new lawsuit.
This month, Democratic state Senate President Stephen Sweeney apologized for abstaining on the gay-marriage vote. He said he was doing what was politically expedient rather than what was right.
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