(CNSNews.com) - The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that homosexuals deserve the same rights as heterosexuals, but the state Legislature must decide whether to give same-sex couples the right to legally "marry" or create civil unions.
"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 court said in its ruling.
The Legislature now has 180 days to address the issue. It has two options: amend the marriage statues to include same-sex couples, or "create a separate statutory structure, such as a civil union."
"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," the court said.
"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," it said.
"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," the ruling added.
"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," the court said in its ruling.
That means that whatever the state Legislature decides, same-sex couples will be free to call their relationship whatever they want and can have their union recognized in religious ceremonies.
"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," it said.
Ruling holds a 'gun to head of the legislature'
Traditional marriage supporters expressed frustration with the ruling.
"This marks the second state -- after Vermont -- where radical activist groups have convinced state court judges to hold a gun to the head of the legislature," said Matt Daniels, president of the Alliance for Marriage (AFM). "The legislature will now be compelled to choose between two bullets -- all under court order.
"Either they create so-called 'gay marriage' or they create a civil union scheme that is identical. Either way, the people of New Jersey lose the right to decide -- freely and democratically -- to choose the course that is best for them, their families and their children," he said.
Daniels said a marriage protection amendment is the only solution to "the continuous attacks upon marriage in courts across the country."
The group filed an amicus brief in the case, arguing for the protection of traditional marriage.
Concerned Women for America said the ruling "essentially mirrors what the Vermont Supreme Court did in 1999."
"This is a textbook example of agenda-driven judges who are willing to twist their state laws and invade the province of the legislative branch in order to force same-sex 'marriage' on the people of New Jersey," Jan LaRue, CWA's chief counsel, said in a statement.
"The court snubbed its nose at 28 separate statute sections that include a specific reference to either the term 'married woman' and a 'married man' or to the term 'husband and wife,'" LaRue said, adding that the decision could result in a snowball effect across the country.
"Because New Jersey has no residency requirement for marriage, if the legislature caves in to the court, it could open the door for lawsuits challenging every state's marriage law," LaRue added.
CWA President Wendy Wright said the court's decision is even more reason that voters should choose to protect marriage in the eight states that have referendums on the ballot.
"The New Jersey Supreme Court has distinguished itself once again for imposing its own form of discrimination by arrogantly declaring that a woman is not needed to make a marriage, or that a man is not," said Wright.
"It's utter discrimination to claim a woman is unnecessary, or a man is unnecessary, to make a marriage. We should not be forced, or children subjected to, another social experiment with marriage simply to make individuals personally satisfied," said CWA President Wendy Wright.
Ruling not a 'victory' for homosexuals either
Same-sex union supporters said the ruling is not a victory.
"Those who would view today's Supreme Court ruling as a victory for same-sex couples are dead wrong," said Steven Goldstein, chair of Garden State Equality, a homosexual advocacy group based in New Jersey.
"So help us God, New Jersey's LGBTI community and our millions of straight allies will settle for nothing less than 100% marriage equality. Let decision makers from Morristown to Moorestown, from Maplewood to Maple Shade, recognize that fundamental fact right now," said Goldstein.
He said Assemblyman Wilfredo Caraballo, the assembly speaker pro tem, joined by Assemblyman Brian Stack and Assemblyman Reed Gusciora, will introduce marriage-equality legislation.
"Thousands of us will now hit the streets, the phones and the hallways to get this legislation passed," Goldstein said, adding that they will accept nothing short of legal marriage which is recognized universally.
"As the late Lt. Laurel Hester and too many other cases across New Jersey have shown, half-steps short of marriage -- like New Jersey's domestic-partnership law and also civil union laws -- don't work in the real world," he said.
"Hospitals and other employers have told domestic-partnered couples across New Jersey: We don't care what the domestic partnership law says. You're not married," said Goldstein.
"That's why it wouldn't matter if the legislature added all the rights in the world to the current law without calling it marriage. Marriage is the only currency of commitment the real world universally understands and accepts," Goldstein added.
The case dates back to June 2002, when Lambda Legal, a homosexual advocacy group, sued the State of New Jersey on behalf of seven same-sex couples seeking full marriage rights.
"The bottom line here is that the entire court said that there must be a remedy for the inequality that bars same-sex couples from marriage," said David Buckel, marriage project director who argued the case before the high court as lead counsel for Lambda Legal.
The group is hopeful that the Legislature will legalize same-sex marriage.
"The question for the Legislature is an easy one: whether to follow through on the support of the majority of voters in this State to allow their gay friends and neighbors to marry, including over 20,000 committed same-sex couples raising more than 12,000 children," Buckel said in a statement.
New Jersey's Domestic Partnership Act gives same-sex couples many, but not all, of the benefits and protections conferred on married people.
New Jersey does not have a law barring out-of-state couples from marrying in the state if they would be prohibited from marrying in their home state. That means homosexual couples could flock to the state to get married.
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