CAMDEN, New Jersey – A commission has concluded that New Jersey legislators should allow gay couples to marry, setting up what could be a spirited debate over whether the state should be the first to allow gay marriage by passing a law, rather than by court mandate.
In its final report, a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press, the state's Civil Union Review Commission concluded that the state's two-year-old civil union law does not do enough to give gay couples the same protections as heterosexual married couples.
"This commission finds that the separate categorization established by the Civil Union Act invites and encourages unequal treatment of same-sex couples and their children," the report says. The findings of the commission's 13 members were unanimous.
The commission found that the rights afforded to those in civil unions were not always well understood, and that allowing gay couples to marry would alleviate the problem. For example, there have been instances when people in civil unions have been prevented from visiting their partners in hospitals and making medical decisions on their behalf, the commission found.
"The commission's report should spark a renewed sense of purpose and urgency to overcoming one of society's last remaining barriers to full equality for all residents," said Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts Jr., a Democrat from Camden and one of the key figures in setting the Legislature's agenda.
Robert Corrales, a spokesman for Gov. Jon S. Corzine, said the governor would not comment on the report until it was presented. But in the past, Corzine has said that he would sign a bill allowing gay marriage.
Connecticut and Massachusetts are the only states to allow gay marriage, and both were ordered to do so by their highest courts. Earlier this year, California's high court said it was unconstitutional to deny gay couples the right to marry, but the decision was trumped by a constitutional amendment approved by voters last month.
Gay marriage opponents criticized the report, saying the commission was made up of members who favored gay marriage and calling its recommendations predetermined.
"If you look at the membership of that committee, they're all advocates. It's an advocacy group," Pat Brannigan, the executive director of the anti-gay-marriage New Jersey Catholic Conference, said Tuesday. "It doesn't mean that that is the conclusion that society and people in general will come to."
Steven Goldstein, the commission's vice chairman and the chairman of Garden State Equality, New Jersey's leading gay rights group, said that while there are some activists like him on the commission, it was a diverse group.
Six of the 13 members are members of the Corzine administration, which Goldstein points out went to court in 2006 to oppose gay marriage. The other seven are members of the public, including one Goldstein described as a "pro-life Republican," AnnLynne Benson of Clementon.
Benson, who confirmed that she is a Republican and opposes abortion, said Tuesday that her views about gays have evolved over the past 15 years or so as she has met more gay people. She said the point of the commission was not to wrestle with whether the state Supreme Court was right to allow civil unions in 2006, but whether the unions delivered on their intent.
Benson said the commission gathered plenty of public comment at a series of hearings before deciding to issue the report.
The report cited another study that found that allowing gay marriage in New Jersey would help the state in lean economic times, too: It estimated that gay weddings would add nearly $250 million to the state's economy over three years.
Meanwhile, the Iowa Supreme Court heard arguments Tuesday from prosecutors and attorneys for six gay couples and three of their children over a district court's decision to overturn that state's gay-marriage ban last year. Only one gay couple managed to marry before the judge who issued the ruling stayed his decision.
Prosecutors argued that the ruling overturning the ban violated the separation of powers because the gay marriage issue should be left up to state lawmakers to decide, not the courts.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs argued their clients should have the same right to marry that heterosexual couples have.
It could take a year or more before a ruling is issued, attorneys involved in the case said.