Posted April 3, 2007 – Surrounded by about 30 friends and family members, Alicia Heath-Toby sported a Black tux jacket with a pair of jeans, a white shirt and a sterling silver necklace, while Saundra Toby-Heath donned a brown linen suit to complement her naturally brown locks.
There were no rings exchanged, because the couple said they gave each other Ethiopian wedding bands during their previous commitment ceremony in their backyard in September 1999.
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But Saturday’s ceremony reinforced the life and love the two women have been sharing for almost a decade now. And it was the first time their union was official in the eyes of the law.
Journey for Full Marriage Equality
The couple, who were introduced to each other by a mutual friend about 18 years ago, received their civil union license last week after a four-year court battle with the state.
"Our holy civil union ceremony was about celebrating the journey, our commitment to loving one another and the gearing up for the journey to having 'full marriage equality' in the next couple of years." Alicia told BET.com.
Saundra, 53, and Alicia, 44, were one of seven New Jersey couples who filed a lawsuit in 2002 seeking full marriage rights for same-sex couples.
In 2004, the state’s Domestic Partnership Act went into effect, granting same-sex couples joint tax status, exemption from inheritance taxes, domestic partner health care benefits, hospital visitation and medical decision-making rights.
In October 2006, the state Supreme Court ruled that denying same-sex couples the rights and benefits of marriage violated the state constitution. The court gave the Legislature six months to enact a law granting the rights of marriage to gay couples, but gave lawmakers the job of deciding whether to call it marriage or something else. They chose the term "civil unions."
The New Jersey Legislature passed its civil union law in December 2006 and in February the state became the fifth to provide some legal recognition for same-sex couples, joining Massachusetts, California, Connecticut and Vermont.
Massachusetts is the only state to allow same-sex marriages with the same legal rights as heterosexual unions.
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Civil Union Protection
While the U.S. federal government and 45 states do not recognize the unions, to Saundra and Alicia it had all the symbolism of a "real wedding."
"Not only were we blessed to be apart of history, but we sojourned with others; Lambda Legal; the other plaintiffs and their families; our family and friends and other residents of New Jersey who believe in equality for all," said Saundra, noting that they are the third couple in the lawsuit who have had a civil union.
Preliminary figures from the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services show the number of couples applying for civil union licenses during the first month they were available was low. Just 229 couples applied for the status in February, compared to the 1,700 couples who registered for domestic partnerships in the first month of availability in 2004.
Saundra said other lesbian and gay couples might be nervous about what is involved in a civil union or they might be holding out for full marriage rights, which she believes will definitely happen. But in the meantime, she said, couples should take advantage of the hundreds of protections under the civil union law and do a civil union now.
"Forming a civil union gives us access to all the rights and obligations, more than 800 conferred by state law, she said. However, we get none of the 1,138 benefits or burdens that the federal law gives to married couples."
A few of these rights are full adoption rights, hospital visitation privileges, inheritance rights, the right to change a surname without petitioning the court and employee family leave and health insurance for your partner. Some employers and situations will still not honor the civil union.
"My employer does not," Saundra said. "This is why the fight must continue for full marriage equality which is the universal language that is understood without question."
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