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Lewis v. Harris

October 25, 2006

MARK LEWIS AND DENNIS WINSLOW; SAUNDRA HEATH AND CLARITA ALICIA TOBY; CRAIG HUTCHISON AND CHRIS LODEWYKS; MAUREEN KILIAN AND CINDY MENEGHIN; SARAH AND SUYIN LAEL; MARILYN MANEELY AND DIANE MARINI; AND KAREN AND MARCYE NICHOLSON-MCFADDEN, PLAINTIFFS-APPELLANTS,
v.
GWENDOLYN L. HARRIS, IN HER OFFICIAL CAPACITY AS COMMISSIONER OF THE NEW JERSEY DEPARTMENT OF HUMAN SERVICES; CLIFTON R. LACY, IN HIS OFFICIAL CAPACITY AS THE COMMISSIONER OF THE NEW JERSEY DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND SENIOR SERVICES; AND JOSEPH KOMOSINSKI, IN HIS OFFICIAL CAPACITY AS ACTING STATE REGISTRAR OF VITAL STATISTICS OF THE NEW JERSEY STATE DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND SENIOR SERVICES, DEFENDANTS-RESPONDENTS.



On appeal from the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinions are reported at 378 N.J. Super. 168 (2005).

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

SYLLABUS

Argued February 15, 2006

ALBIN, J., writing for a majority of the Court.

Plaintiffs are seven same-sex couples who have been in permanent committed relationships for more than ten years. Each seeks to marry his or her partner and to enjoy the legal, financial, and social benefits that marriage affords. After being denied marriage licenses in their respective municipalities, plaintiffs sued challenging the constitutionality of the State's marriage statutes.

In a complaint filed in the Superior Court, Law Division, plaintiffs sought a declaration that laws denying same-sex marriage violated the liberty and equal protection guarantees of Article I, Paragraph 1 of the New Jersey Constitution. They also sought injunctive relief compelling the defendant State officials to grant them marriage licenses. (The named defendants are Gwendolyn L. Harris, former Commissioner of the Department of Human Services, Clifton R. Lacy, former Commissioner of the Department of Health and Senior Services, and Joseph Komosinski, former Acting State Registrar of Vital Statistics. For the purpose of this decision, they are being referred to collectively as the "State.")

Both parties moved for summary judgment. The trial court, Superior Court Judge Linda Feinberg, entered summary judgment in the State's favor and dismissed the complaint. Plaintiffs appealed. In a split decision, the Appellate Division affirmed. Judge Stephen Skillman wrote the majority opinion in which he concluded that New Jersey's marriage statutes do not contravene the substantive due process and equal protection guarantees of Article I, Paragraph 1 of the State Constitution. He determined that only the Legislature could authorize same-sex marriages.

Appellate Division Judge Anthony Parrillo filed a concurring opinion. Although joining Judge Skillman's opinion, Judge Parrillo added his view of the twofold nature of the relief sought by plaintiffs -- the right to marry and the rights of marriage. He submitted that it was the Legislature's role to weigh the benefits and costs flowing from a profound change in the meaning of marriage.

Appellate Division Judge Donald Collester, Jr., dissented. He concluded that the substantive due process and equal protection guarantees of Article I, Paragraph 1 obligate the State to afford same-sex couples the right to marry on terms equal to those afforded opposite-sex couples.

The matter came before the Court as an appeal as of right by virtue of the dissent in the Appellate Division.

HELD: Denying 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. The Court holds 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 opposite-sex couples under the civil marriage statutes. The name to be given to the statutory scheme that provides full rights and benefits to same-sex couples, whether marriage or some other term, is a matter left to the democratic process.

1. As this case presents no factual dispute, the Court addresses solely questions of law. The Court perceives plaintiffs' equal protection claim to have two components: whether committed same-sex couples have a constitutional right to the benefits and privileges afforded to married heterosexual couples, and, if so, whether they have a constitutional right to have their relationship recognized by the name of marriage. (pp. 19-21)

2. In attempting to discern the substantive rights that are "fundamental" under Article I, Paragraph 1, of the State Constitution, the Court has followed the general standard adopted by the United States Supreme Court in construing the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. First, the asserted fundamental liberty interest must be clearly identified. In this case, the identified right is the right of same-sex couples to marry. Second, the liberty interest in same-sex marriage must be objectively and deeply rooted in the traditions, history, and conscience of the people of this State. (pp. 21-25)

3. New Jersey's marriage laws, which were first enacted in 1912, limit marriage to heterosexual couples. The recently enacted Domestic Partnership Act explicitly acknowledges that same-sex couples cannot marry. Although today there is a national debate over whether same-sex marriages should be authorized by the states, the framers of the 1947 New Jersey Constitution could not have imagined that the liberty right protected by Article I, Paragraph 1 embraced same-sex marriage. (pp. 25-28)

4. Times and attitudes have changed. There has been a developing understanding that discrimination against gays and lesbians is no longer acceptable in this State. On the federal level, the United States Supreme Court has struck down laws that have unconstitutionally targeted gays and lesbians for disparate treatment. Although plaintiffs rely on the federal cases to support the argument that they have a fundamental right to marry under our State Constitution, those cases fall far short of establishing a fundamental right to same-sex marriage "deeply rooted in the traditions, history, and conscience of the people of this State." 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, the Court cannot find that the right to same-sex marriage is a fundamental right under our constitution. (pp. 28-33)

5. The Court has construed the expansive language of Article I, Paragraph 1 to embrace the fundamental guarantee of equal protection, thereby requiring the Court to determine whether the State's marriage laws permissibly distinguish between same-sex and heterosexual couples. The test the Court has applied to equal protection claims is a flexible one that includes three factors: the nature of the right at stake, the extent to which the challenged statutory scheme restricts that right, and the public need for the statutory restriction. (pp. 34-36)

6. In conducting its equal protection analysis, the Court discerns two distinct issues. The first is whether same-sex couples have the right to the statutory benefits and privileges conferred on heterosexual married couples. Assuming that right, the next issue is whether committed same-sex partners have a constitutional right to define their relationship by the name of marriage. (p. 37)

7. New Jersey's courts and its Legislature have been at the forefront of combating sexual orientation discrimination and advancing equality of treatment toward gays and lesbians. In 1992, through an amendment to the Law Against Discrimination (LAD), New Jersey became the fifth state to prohibit discrimination on the basis of "affectional or sexual orientation." In making sexual orientation a protected category, the Legislature committed New Jersey to the goal of eradicating discrimination against gays and lesbians. In 2004, the Legislature added "domestic partnership status" to the categories protected by the LAD. (pp. 37-40)

8. Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is also outlawed in our criminal law and public contracts law. The Legislature, moreover, created the New Jersey Human Relations Council to promote educational programs aimed at reducing bias and bias-related acts, identifying sexual orientation as a protected category. In 2004, the Legislature passed the Domestic Partnership Act, which confers certain benefits and rights on same-sex partners who enter into a partnership under the Act. (pp. 40-42)

9. The Domestic Partnership Act has failed to bridge the inequality gap between committed same-sex couples and married opposite-sex couples. Significantly, the economic and financial inequities that are borne by same-sex domestic partners are also borne by their children. Further, even though same-sex couples are provided fewer benefits and rights by the Act, they are subject to more stringent requirements to enter into a domestic partnership than opposite-sex couples entering a marriage. (pp. 43-48)

10. At this point, the Court does 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. (p. 48)

11. The State does not argue that limiting marriage to the union of a man and a woman is needed to encourage procreation or to create the optimal living environment for children. Other than sustaining the traditional definition of marriage, which is not implicated in this discussion, the State has not articulated any legitimate public need for depriving committed same-sex couples of the host of benefits and privileges that are afforded to married heterosexual couples. There is, on the one hand, no rational basis for giving gays and lesbians full civil rights as individuals while, on the other hand, giving them an incomplete set of rights when they enter into committed same-sex relationships. To the extent that families are strengthened by encouraging monogamous relationships, whether heterosexual or homosexual, the Court cannot discern a public need that would justify the legal disabilities that now afflict same-sex domestic partnerships. (pp. 48-51)

12. In arguing to uphold the system of disparate treatment that disfavors same-sex couples, the State offers as a justification the interest in uniformity with other states' laws. Our current laws concerning same-sex couples are more in line with those of Vermont, Massachusetts, and Connecticut than the majority of other states. Equality of treatment is a dominant theme of our laws and a central guarantee of our State Constitution. This is fitting for a state with so diverse a population. Article I, Paragraph 1 protects not only the rights of the majority but also the rights of the disfavored and the disadvantaged; they too are promised a fair opportunity for "pursuing and obtaining safety and happiness." (pp. 51-56)

13. The equal protection requirement of Article I, Paragraph 1 leaves the Legislature with two apparent options. 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. Because this State has no experience with a civil union construct, the Court will not speculate that identical schemes offering equal rights and benefits would create a distinction that would offend Article I, Paragraph 1, and will not presume that a difference in name is of constitutional magnitude. New language is developing to describe new social and familial relationships, and in time will find a place in our common vocabulary. 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. (pp. 57-63)

14. In the last two centuries, the institution of marriage has reflected society's changing social mores and values. Legislatures, along with courts, have played a major role in ushering marriage into the modern era of equality of partners. The great engine for social change in this country has always been the democratic process. Although courts can ensure equal treatment, they cannot guarantee social acceptance, which must come through the evolving ethos of a maturing society. Plaintiffs' quest does not end here. They must now appeal to their fellow citizens whose voices are heard through their popularly elected representatives. (pp. 63-64)

15. To bring the State into compliance with Article I, Paragraph 1 so that plaintiffs can exercise their full constitutional rights, the Legislature must either amend the marriage statutes or enact an appropriate statutory structure within 180 days of the date of this decision. (p. 65)

The judgment of the Appellate Division is MODIFIED and, as MODIFIED, is AFFIRMED.

CHIEF JUSTICE PORITZ has filed a separate CONCURRING and DISSENTING opinion, in which JUSTICES LONG and ZAZZALI join. She concurs in the finding of the majority that denying the rights and benefits to committed same-sex couples that are statutorily given to their heterosexual counterparts violates the equal protection guarantee of Article I, Paragraph 1 of the New Jersey Constitution. She dissents from the majority's distinguishing those rights and benefits from the right to the title of marriage. She also dissents from the majority's conclusion that there is no fundamental due process right to same-sex marriage encompassed within the concept of "liberty" guaranteed by Article I, Paragraph 1. She is of the view that persons who exercise their autonomous liberty interest to choose same-sex partners have a fundamental right to participate in a state-sanctioned civil marriage.

JUSTICES LaVECCHIA, WALLACE, and RIVERA-SOTO join in JUSTICE ALBIN's opinion. CHIEF JUSTICE PORITZ filed a separate concurring and dissenting opinion in which JUSTICES LONG and ZAZZALI join.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Albin

Argued February 15, 2006

The statutory and decisional laws of this State protect individuals from discrimination based on sexual orientation. When those individuals are gays and lesbians who follow the inclination of their sexual orientation and enter into a committed relationship with someone of the same sex, our laws treat them, as couples, differently than heterosexual couples. As committed same-sex partners, they are not permitted to marry or to enjoy the multitude of social and financial benefits and privileges conferred on opposite-sex married couples.

In this case, we must decide whether persons of the same sex have a fundamental right to marry that is encompassed within the concept of liberty guaranteed by Article I, Paragraph 1 of the New Jersey Constitution. Alternatively, we must decide whether Article I, Paragraph 1's equal protection guarantee requires that committed same-sex couples be given on equal terms the legal benefits and privileges awarded to married heterosexual couples and, if so, whether that guarantee also requires that the title of marriage, as opposed to some other term, define the committed same-sex legal relationship.

Only rights that are deeply rooted in the traditions, history, and conscience of the people are deemed to be fundamental. Although we cannot find that a fundamental right to same-sex marriage exists in this State, the unequal dispensation of rights and benefits to committed same-sex partners can no longer be tolerated under our State Constitution. With this State's legislative and judicial commitment to eradicating sexual orientation discrimination as our backdrop, we now hold that denying rights and benefits to committed same-sex couples that are statutorily given to their heterosexual counterparts violates the equal protection guarantee of Article I, Paragraph 1. To comply with this constitutional mandate, the Legislature must either amend the marriage statutes to include same-sex couples or create a parallel statutory structure, which will provide for, on equal terms, the rights and benefits enjoyed and burdens and obligations borne by married couples. We will not presume that a separate statutory scheme, which uses a title other than marriage, contravenes equal protection principles, so long as the rights and benefits of civil marriage are made equally available to same-sex couples. The name to be given to the statutory scheme that provides full rights and benefits to same-sex couples, whether marriage or some other term, is a matter left to the democratic process.

I.

A.

Plaintiffs are seven same-sex couples who claim that New Jersey's laws, which restrict civil marriage to the union of a man and a woman, violate the liberty and equal protection guarantees of the New Jersey Constitution. Each plaintiff has been in a "permanent committed relationship" for more than ten years and each seeks to marry his or her partner and to enjoy the legal, financial, and social benefits that are afforded by marriage. When the seven couples applied for marriage licenses in the municipalities in which they live, the appropriate licensing officials told them that the law did not permit same-sex couples to marry. Plaintiffs then filed a complaint in the Superior Court, Law Division, challenging the constitutionality of the State's marriage statutes.

In terms of the value they place on family, career, and community service, plaintiffs lead lives that are remarkably similar to those of opposite-sex couples.*fn1 Alicia Toby and Saundra Heath, who reside in Newark, have lived together for seventeen years and have children and grandchildren. Alicia is an ordained minister in a church where her pastoral duties include coordinating her church's HIV prevention program. Saundra works as a dispatcher for Federal Express.

Mark Lewis and Dennis Winslow reside in Union City and have been together for fourteen years. They both are pastors in the Episcopal Church. In their ministerial capacities, they have officiated at numerous weddings and signed marriage certificates, though their own relationship cannot be similarly sanctified under New Jersey law. When Dennis's father was suffering from a serious long-term illness, Mark helped care for him in their home as would a devoted son-in-law.

Diane Marini and Marilyn Maneely were committed partners for fourteen years until Marilyn's death in 2005.*fn2 The couple lived in Haddonfield, where Diane helped raise, as though they were her own, Marilyn's five children from an earlier marriage.

Diane's mother considered Marilyn her daughter-in-law and Marilyn's children her grandchildren. The daily routine of their lives mirrored those of "other suburban married couples [their] age." Marilyn was a registered nurse. Diane is a businesswoman who serves on the planning board in Haddonfield, where she is otherwise active in community affairs.

Karen and Marcye Nicholson-McFadden have been committed partners for seventeen years, living together for most of that time in Aberdeen. There, they are raising two young children conceived through artificial insemination, Karen having given birth to their daughter and Marcye to their son. They own an executive search firm where Marcye works full-time and Karen at night and on weekends. Karen otherwise devotes herself to daytime parenting responsibilities. Both are generally active in their community, with Karen serving on the township zoning board.

Suyin and Sarah Lael have resided together in Franklin Park for most of the sixteen years of their familial partnership. Suyin is employed as an administrator for a non-profit corporation, and Sarah is a speech therapist. They live with their nine-year-old adopted daughter and two other children who they are in the process of adopting. They legally changed their surname and that of their daughter to reflect their status as one family. Like many other couples, Suyin and Sarah share holidays with their extended families.

Cindy Meneghin and Maureen Kilian first met in high school and have been in a committed relationship for thirty-two years. They have lived together for twenty-three years in Butler where they are raising a fourteen-year-old son and a twelve-year-old daughter. Through artificial insemination, Cindy conceived their son and Maureen their daughter. Cindy is a director of web services at Montclair State University, and Maureen is a church administrator. They are deeply involved in their children's education, attending after-school activities and PTA meetings. They also play active roles in their church, serving with their children in the soup kitchen to help the needy.

Chris Lodewyks and Craig Hutchison have been in a committed relationship with each other since their college days thirty-five years ago. They have lived together in Pompton Lakes for the last twenty-three years. Craig works in Summit, where he is an investment asset manager and president of the Summit Downtown Association. He also serves as the vice-chairman of the board of trustees of a YMCA camp for children. Chris, who is retired, helps Craig's elderly mother with daily chores, such as getting to the eye doctor.

The seeming ordinariness of plaintiffs' lives is belied by the social indignities and economic difficulties that they daily face due to the inferior legal standing of their relationships compared to that of married couples. Without the benefits of marriage, some plaintiffs have had to endure the expensive and time-consuming process of cross-adopting each other's children and effectuating legal surname changes. Other plaintiffs have had to contend with economic disadvantages, such as paying excessive health insurance premiums because employers did not have to provide coverage to domestic partners, not having a right to "family leave" time, and suffering adverse inheritance tax consequences.

When some plaintiffs have been hospitalized, medical facilities have denied privileges to their partners customarily extended to family members. For example, when Cindy Meneghin contracted meningitis, the hospital's medical staff at first ignored her pleas to allow her partner Maureen to accompany her to the emergency room. After Marcye Nicholson-McFadden gave birth to a son, a hospital nurse challenged the right of her partner Karen to be present in the newborn nursery to view their child. When Diane Marini received treatment for breast cancer, medical staff withheld information from her partner Marilyn "that would never be withheld from a spouse or even a more distant relative." Finally, plaintiffs recount the indignities, embarrassment, and anguish that they as well as their children have suffered in attempting to explain their family status.*fn3

B.

In a complaint filed in the Superior Court, plaintiffs sought both a declaration that the laws denying same-sex marriage violated the liberty and equal protection guarantees of Article I, Paragraph 1 of the New Jersey Constitution and injunctive relief compelling defendants to grant them marriage licenses.*fn4 The defendants named in the complaint are Gwendolyn L. Harris, the then Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Human Services responsible for implementing the State's marriage statutes; Clifton R. Lacy, the then Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services responsible for the operation of the State Registrar of Vital Statistics; and Joseph Komosinski, the then Acting State Registrar of Vital

Statistics of the Department of Health and Senior Services responsible for supervising local registration of marriage records.*fn5 The departments run by those officials have oversight duties relating to the issuance of marriage licenses.

The complaint detailed a number of statutory benefits and privileges available to opposite-sex couples through New Jersey's civil marriage laws but denied to committed same-sex couples. Additionally, in their affidavits, plaintiffs asserted that the laws prohibiting same-sex couples to marry caused harm to their dignity and social standing, and inflicted psychic injuries on them, their children, and their extended families.

The State moved to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted, see R. 4:6-2(e), and later both parties moved for summary judgment, see R. 4:46-2(c). The trial court entered summary judgment in favor of the State and dismissed the complaint.

In an unpublished opinion, the trial court first concluded that marriage is restricted to the union of a man and a woman under New Jersey law. The court maintained that the notion of "same-sex marriage was so foreign" to the legislators who in 1912 passed the marriage statute that "a ban [on same-sex marriage] hardly needed mention." The court next rejected plaintiffs' argument that same-sex couples possess a fundamental right to marriage protected by the State Constitution, finding that such a right was not so rooted in the collective conscience and traditions of the people of this State as to be deemed fundamental. Last, the court held that the marriage laws did not violate the State Constitution's equal protection guarantee. The court determined that "limiting marriage to mixed-gender couples is a valid and reasonable exercise of government authority" and that the rights of gays and lesbians could "be protected in ways other than alteration of the traditional understanding of marriage." Plaintiffs were attempting "not to lift a barrier to marriage," according to the court, but rather "to change its very essence." To accomplish that end, the court suggested that plaintiffs would have to seek relief from the Legislature, which at the time was considering the passage of a domestic partnership act.

C.

A divided three-judge panel of the Appellate Division affirmed. Lewis v. Harris, 378 N.J. Super. 168, 194 (App. Div. 2005). Writing for the majority, Judge Skillman determined that New Jersey's marriage statutes do not contravene the substantive due process and equal protection guarantees of Article I, Paragraph 1 of the State Constitution. Id. at 188-89. In analyzing the substantive due process claim, Judge Skillman concluded that "[m]arriage between members of the same sex is clearly not a fundamental right." Id. at 183 (internal quotation marks omitted). He reached that conclusion because he could find no support for such a proposition in the text of the State Constitution, this State's history and traditions, or contemporary social standards. Id. at 183-84. He noted that "[o]ur leading religions view marriage as a union of men and women recognized by God" and that "our society considers marriage between a man and woman to play a vital role in propagating the species and in providing the ideal environment for raising children." Id. at 185.*fn6

In rebuffing plaintiffs' equal protection claim, Judge Skillman looked to the balancing test that governs such claims -- a consideration of "'the nature of the affected right, the extent to which the governmental restriction intrudes upon it, and the public need for the restriction.'" Id. at 189 (quoting Greenberg v. Kimmelman, 99 N.J. 552, 567 (1985)). Starting with the premise that there is no fundamental right to same-sex marriage, Judge Skillman reasoned that plaintiffs could not demonstrate the existence of an "affected" or "claimed" right.

Id. at 189-90 (internal quotation marks omitted). From that viewpoint, the State was not required to show that a public need for limiting marriage to opposite-sex couples outweighed a nonexistent affected right to same-sex marriage. Id. at 190.

Judge Skillman chronicled the legislative progress made by same-sex couples through such enactments as the Domestic Partnership Act and expressed his view of the constricted role of judges in setting social policy: "A constitution is not simply an empty receptacle into which judges may pour their own conceptions of evolving social mores." Id. at 176-79. In the absence of a constitutional mandate, he concluded that only the Legislature could authorize marriage between members of the same sex. Id. at 194. Judge Skillman, however, emphasized that same-sex couples "may assert claims that the due process and equal protection guarantees of [the State Constitution] entitle them to additional legal benefits provided by marriage." Ibid.

In a separate opinion, Judge Parrillo fully concurred with Judge Skillman's reasoning, but added his view of the twofold nature of the relief sought by plaintiffs -- "the right to marry and the rights of marriage." Id. at 194-95 (Parrillo, J., concurring). Judge Parrillo observed that the right to marry necessarily includes significant "economic, legal and regulatory benefits," the so-called rights of marriage. Id. at 195. With regard to those "publicly-conferred tangible [and] intangible benefits" incident to marriage that are denied to same-sex couples, Judge Parrillo asserted plaintiffs are free to challenge "on an ad-hoc basis" any "particular statutory exclusion resulting in disparate or unfair treatment." Ibid. He concluded, however, that courts had no constitutional authority to alter "a core feature of marriage," namely "its binary, opposite-sex nature." Id. at 199-200. He maintained that "[p]rocreative heterosexual intercourse is and has been historically through all times and cultures an important feature of that privileged status, and that ...


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