What's in a name?

October 27, 2006

New Jersey's highest court gave a resounding, unanimous endorsement this week to the principle that same-sex couples must be accorded the "same financial and social benefits and privileges" as heterosexual partners. But the court choked on calling gay unions "marriage."

The ruling clearly advanced the long legal and political battle by gays and lesbians to achieve the equal status guaranteed to them as a fundamental human right.

By punting to the legislature, though, the question of whether same-sex pairs can get a marriage license or must settle for some alternate document, the court sidestepped the highly charged debate over how to define an emotional and legal commitment traditionally made by a man and a woman.

Thus, New Jersey's ruling can't be the end of the matter for the state or the larger national debate, which is also being waged this year in Maryland's highest court.

At issue is whether marriage by any other name, to paraphrase Shakespeare, would sound as sweet.

Chief Justice Deborah Poritz argued in a dissenting view that limiting same-sex couples to civil unions would create a two-class system that would be both separate and inherently unequal. What's in a name in this case is a kind of social recognition and acceptance, she said.

A 4-to-3 majority of the New Jersey court maintained, though, that it is the job of the legislature to confer such social acceptance, "which must come from the evolving ethos of a maturing society."

Indeed, it would be preferable if legislatures could resolve this issue; too often, abuses of fairness and human dignity are left to the courts. Nonetheless, New Jersey has given the evolutionary process a significant push.

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