When the New Jersey Legislature passed the civil union bill, its intention was to create a “separate but equal” legal status that provided all of the same rights, benefits and obligations of heterosexual marriage under New Jersey law. But there is an important limitation found in the phrase “under New Jersey law”—the rights, benefits and obligations provided by the state are limited by the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).
DOMA was passed by Congress in 1996 and signed into law by then-President Clinton. The law had two parts. First, it purportedly limits the Full Faith and Credit clause of the federal Constitution, allowing states to withhold recognition of same-sex legal relationships entered in other states. Second, DOMA provides that in any federal law, regulation, ruling, or administrative proceeding, the term ‘marriage’ is limited to a “legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife” and the term ‘spouse’ is limited to a “person of the opposite sex who is a husband or wife.”