TRENTON, N.J. – The effort to get same-sex marriage legalized in New Jersey (search) resumes Tuesday when an appeals court hears arguments on behalf of gay couples who sued the state because they want to wed.
The Appellate Division is likely to be just a legal stop for the case on the way to the state Supreme Court, which is widely expected to eventually decide the issue.
"I think everyone's assuming that," said David Buckel, the attorney for the seven couples who filed the lawsuit in 2002.
The state Attorney General's Office supported moving the case directly to the Supreme Court, but the justices said in October that they wanted the appeals court to hear it first.
The state's argument against the gay couples has been that the state Constitution does not permit same-sex unions and that the issue should be taken up with the Legislature, which can change the law.
A Superior Court judge agreed with the state last year and threw out the lawsuit. Tuesday's hearing is an appeal of that ruling.
"We'll argue the trial judge was dead wrong," Buckel said. "She adopted the state's position that same-sex couples cannot access marriage. But their interest is the same as married couples: they want to build and support their families. Their interests are the same and just as weighty."
Buckel also dismissed the argument that the matter belongs with the Legislature.
"The Legislature does a lot of important work, but the court is poised to act when the Legislature violates the Constitution," he said.
Massachusetts (search) is the only state that allows gay marriage. The U.S. Supreme Court rejected a challenge to that law last week.
Another challenge to gay marriage supporters is also ahead. President Bush has said he would push for the passage of a federal constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.
While gay marriage is banned in the state, New Jersey passed one of the nation's first domestic partnership laws earlier this year. It grants some legal rights to couples who register, including making medical decisions for each other and tax benefits.
"Domestic partnership in New Jersey is nice, but it is not marriage," said Chris Lodewyks, who is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit along with his partner of 33 years. "We would like our relationship honored. Both of us feel that marriage in our society is the ultimate experience of commitment."
Asbury Park began issuing gay marriage licenses in March, and 17 same-sex wedding ceremonies were held over several days until the state barred the city from granting the licenses.
Lodewyks said last week that he hoped to win Tuesday's appeal of the lawsuit, but he doesn't expect the matter to be resolved in New Jersey until it is heard by the state's highest court.
"To me, it doesn't mean anything until it gets to the Supreme Court," he said.