Six N.J. municipal websites tell marriage license applicants they must be of opposite sex
Group found incorrect language after couple sought license in Fairview
The head of New Jersey’s LGBTQ rights group says towns should update the language on their websites to create a welcoming town at a time when gay and transgender people feel their rights are under attack. (Photo by Kena Betancur/Getty Images)
Excited to start their lives together after getting engaged in October, Jesselly De La Cruz and Virginia Orozco took the first step toward marriage: getting a license from their town hall.
But their excitement faded when they saw the language on Fairview Borough’s website, which says two people must be of the opposite sex to get married. Orozco and De La Cruz are women.
“It adds to the frustration of something that we were really looking forward to. It’s a big milestone — a huge milestone for us because we’re forming a family,” De La Cruz told the New Jersey Monitor.
Same-sex couples have been legally allowed to wed in New Jersey since 2013, when a judge ordered New Jersey to allow gay marriage after steps to approve it in the Legislature had repeatedly failed. Two years later, the U.S. Supreme Court required all states to recognize same-sex marriage.
The episode in Fairview, a borough in southern Bergen County, sparked De La Cruz, director of the Latino Action Network Foundation, and her team to review language on websites in all New Jersey municipalities.
They found most towns use language that does not exclude same-sex couples. But about five dozen use gendered language like “bride and groom” to describe applicants for marriage licenses, while six are in “direct violation of New Jersey law” by saying licenses are only available to opposite-sex couples.
The websites of Fairview, New Hanover, Hanover, South Toms River, and Estelle Manor all incorrectly cite that marriage licenses are available only to opposite-sex couples, and direct same-sex couples to seek civil unions. None of the towns responded to requests for comment.
Linden’s site contained the same verbiage, but officials there changed it after the New Jersey Monitor contacted them.
About 20% of towns had no information on their website regarding marriage licenses, according to the Latino Action Network.
De La Cruz pointed to paperwork in various counties that ask where the bride lives or for the records of the groom’s mother. That language is demeaning and excludes LGBTQ residents, she said.
“What is this outdated language about bride and groom and parents everywhere? Am I supposed to wait for a horse and buggy to come around? Am I getting married in exchange for sheep? It’s just outdated and dehumanizing, and we should be way beyond this,” she said.
Exclusionary language can hurt same-sex couples who may already be grappling with coming out to their family, or even deter couples from pursuing a marriage if it looks like another big hurdle, she added.
Christian Fuscarino, director of LGBTQ rights group Garden State Equality, said he assumes municipalities haven’t updated their website language due to the burden of paperwork. Still, he added, it’s even more important now to ensure they comply with the law and create a welcoming town, because gay and transgender people feel their rights are under attack.
“At the state level, we have one of the most pro-equality laws in the nation, but at the local municipal level, that’s where LGBTQ people experience lived equality, not necessarily what’s in the law, and those are areas where … local municipalities can be doing more to be welcoming to the LGBTQ community,” he said.
De La Cruz highlighted Camden County as a model for the state, since every one of its towns has websites with inclusive language for same-sex couples.
The foundation plans to send the report to the state attorney general, the Division on Civil Rights, and the state Health Department to ensure all New Jersey municipalities comply with the law.
De La Cruz also wants to see municipalities’ frontline staff get trained on making the process more inclusive. She and her wife had to explain repeatedly that they were the two people getting married when officials asked for the bride and groom.
“We didn’t have anyone ask what our pronouns are or make that effort to have inclusive language for two people,” she said. “I don’t think it’s that hard in 2022. It’s pretty simple to just say, these are the two people getting married.”
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