ASBURY PARK – Marriage equality has been the law of the land in New Jersey for nearly a decade. However, at both the state and national level, same-sex marriage wasn’t codified into law until 2022.
The Respect for Marriage Act, which was signed into law by President Biden on Dec. 13, 2022, provides statutory authority for same-sex and interracial marriages at the federal level. Protections for same-sex marriage were codified into state law in January.
“As someone in an interracial, same-sex relationship married to someone who served in the U.S. military, this bill could not hit closer to home. The U.S. Supreme Court could unravel nearly every legal right we have,” Christian Fuscarino, executive director of New Jersey’s largest LGBTQ advocacy organization Garden State Equality, wrote in an opinion piece published by the USA TODAY NETWORK New Jersey.
Specifically, the Respect for Marriage Act replaces provisions that defined for purposes of federal law marriage as between a man and a woman and a spouse as a person of the opposite sex with provisions that recognize any marriage between two individuals that is valid under state law. (The Supreme Court held that the current provisions were unconstitutional in United States v. Windsor in 2013.)
The Respect for Marriage Act arrived seven years after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges ruling, which legalized marriage equality at a national level.
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With the nation’s highest court now decidedly conservative-leaning and following the court’s June decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, however, there was a legislative push to codify marriage equality.
“The majority of the Supreme Court appears focused on dismantling rights of American citizens, and we felt an anxiety and tension that we thought was behind us,” said Asbury Park deputy mayor Amy Quinn. “The Respect for Marriage Act protects the legal rights of gay people in our country again, hopefully for good. But this is a reminder that we can never lay down our duty to vote in every election as if our life depended on it.”
The Supreme Court legalized interracial marriage in its 1967 Loving v. Virginia decision, and that right was shored up on a national level by the Respect for Marriage Act. In Trenton, state assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex) introduced legislation to codify interracial marriage into New Jersey law in November. No progress has been made on the bill since, and there is no version of the bill yet in the state senate.
‘There is more to be done.’
Jersey Pride president Laura Pople was part of the 1992 movement to have New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination amended to include sexual orientation. The law was further amended in 2006 to include gender identity.
When President Joe Biden signed the Respect for Marriage Act into law, Pople received a “jubilant but incredulous” text message from a friend who’d worked with her in 1991 on the New Jersey Lesbian and Gay Coalition to amend New Jersey’s law.
“Did I ever believe we would see this day?” Pople said. “And that got me thinking.”
“Our progress has always been commanded by the boots on the ground,” said Pople. “Not just those boots of the activists who demand equal rights, but also those of the LGBTQ people who, by their very acts of living their lives, increases the visibility of our community, as well as those of the allies who rally with us.”
Pople said every step forward is embraced with joy – while also recognizing that more work needs to be done, more challenges remain to be confronted.
“Amidst this backdrop, I did believe we would see this day,” she said. “I greet this federal acknowledgement that ‘love is love’ with joy, and with gratitude to all whose lives and efforts made this possible. And now I will get back to work because I know there is more to be done.”
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The Respect for Marriage Act replaces provisions that did not require states to recognize same-sex marriages from other states with provisions that prohibit the denial of full faith and credit or any right or claim relating to out-of-state marriages on the basis of sex, race, ethnicity, or national origin.
The act allows the Department of Justice to bring a civil action and establishes a private right of action for violations.
The act does not affect religious liberties or conscience protections that are available under the Constitution or federal law, require religious organizations to provide goods or services to formally recognize or celebrate a marriage, affect any benefits or rights that do not arise from a marriage, or recognize under federal law any marriage between more than two individuals.
New Jersey was the 14th state to allow same-sex couples to wed in 2013. Protections for same-sex marriage were codified into state law in January 2022, protecting marriage equality from “the whims of the staunchly conservative-leaning U.S. Supreme Court,” Fuscarino said at the time.
‘A joyous occasion’
The first gay marriage in the state took place in Asbury Park in 2004 when Ric Best and Louis Navarrete were married.
“I remember we called in our city lawyer to at least spend the weekend reviewing the statutes and the laws of New Jersey and it basically said you need to be two consenting adults 18 years or older and based on that the City of Asbury Park issued a license,” said former Asbury Park Mayor Ed Johnson, who was the “best man” to Best at the wedding.
By the time the relatively small group left city hall, Johnson said, the amount of press that was outside “was like the red carpet at the Oscars” and it had become a national story. The attorney general at the time said the state would seek an injunction to bar such actions.
“For the state to look through your bedroom window and decide can you use contraception, can you love the person that you love, can you marry the person that you love; if that’s not intrusive government I don’t know what is,” Johnson said.
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Johnson has lived in Asbury Park with his partner Jeff Lundenberger since 1998. They were married in Niagra Falls, Canada in August 2003.
“It was really shocking, in a pleasant way, to see the difference across a river,” he said. “It was like two completely different types of society.”
Johnson was first appointed to the City Council for an unexpired term in 2005, before eventually becoming mayor and retiring from public service in 2013. He has married close to 200 couples consisting of same sex couples, interracial couples, ages from 18-year-olds to senior citizens and everything in between.
“And of all of the work I had to, and all the experiences I had in my life in public service, each one of those weddings was a joyous occasion,” he said.
When marriage equality got the all-clear from New Jersey courts, Amy Quinn and her partner of 10 years, Heather Jensen, were among the first to be wed, exchanging vows in an October 2013 ceremony on Asbury Park Boardwalk.
A decade later and Quinn, the deputy mayor of Asbury Park, has seen the rollercoaster of emotions that has been associated with marriage equality.
“When marriage equality passed in 2015, I think most gay people heaved a sigh of relief,” said Quinn, in reference to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges. “LGBTQ people got engaged, got married, and then some got divorced and the sky didn’t fall.”
Charles Daye is the metro reporter for Asbury Park and Neptune, with a focus on diversity, equity and inclusion. @CharlesDayeAPP Contact him: [email protected]
Alex Biese has been writing about art, entertainment, culture and news on a local and national level for more than 15 years. Alex can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter at@ABieseAPP.