N.J. gay marriage would gratify early proponent

Diane Marini (left) and Marilyn Maneely at home in Haddonfield in 2005.
Diane Marini (left) and Marilyn Maneely at home in Haddonfield in 2005. (AP)
Posted: July 09, 2013

Other than dear, what was Diane Marini supposed to call Marilyn Maneely, the love of her life?

Nothing suited, exactly - not girlfriend, not lover, not domestic partner.Wife would have worked; spouse was right, but those words weren't available, and still aren't, in New Jersey, where civil union exists, but gay marriage does not.

" Marriage - people say it's just a word, but it's more than that," said Marini, 60, now what - a widow? Maneely succumbed to ALS, Lou Gehrig's disease, in 2005, after the couple were together for 15 years.

"Equality works when you have everything - it's when you have the same rights, and the word, the word goes with it," Marini said.

"The word marriage is universally understood," said Marini, who owns two businesses, Marini Construction and Cabinets of Collingswood L.L.C.

That's why she has more than a passing interest in a court battle on the issue that will play out next month in New Jersey - a battle related to the historic U.S. Supreme Court decision on gay marriage issued last month.

"I was thrilled," said Marini, who left work early to watch the coverage on television at her home in Collingswood. "I was crying. [The plaintiff's] story was so similar to ours."

On June 26, the Supreme Court struck down part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). The ruling provides the same federal benefits to same-sex couples as to heterosexual couples in states where same-sex marriages are legal.

New Jersey is not one of them.

Eleven years to the day earlier, on June 26, 2002, Marini and Maneely joined six other same-sex New Jersey couples in a lawsuit that set the stage for the court battle that will play out next month in the state.

Their case, Lewis v. Harris, led to an October 2006 New Jersey Supreme Court decision that the state's failure to afford same-sex couples the same rights and duties as different-sex couples violated New Jersey's constitution.

The court directed the Legislature to rectify the situation, and on Dec. 12, 2006, the New Jersey Assembly passed the Civil Union Act to provide same-sex couples "all the rights and benefits that married heterosexual couples enjoy."

The law also included a commission charged with studying the law and making sure it worked. It didn't, the commission said, concluding that the act's creation of a civil union status "invites and encourages unequal treatment of same-sex couples and their children."

On March 18, 2010, many of the original couples in the Lewis case returned to the courts, filing a new suit saying that the Civil Union Act didn't provide them with the same "rights and benefits" enjoyed by married heterosexual couples.

Marini, obviously, didn't join the lawsuit.

Maneely had died a year before New Jersey's Supreme Court ruling and 15 months before the Civil Union Act was signed into law.

On Tuesday, even as lawyers in the new case, Garden State Equality v. Paula Dow, prepared legal papers to meet a Wednesday deadline, Marini sat in a restaurant in Westmont and talked about her life with Maneely.

They met in 1990 and fell in love almost instantly. Moving into a rambling fixer-upper in Haddonfield, they raised Maneely's five children. "She told me, 'I'm more married now than when I was actually married. We share everything,' " Marini recalled.

"She had a great laugh, and she was your best audience," Marini said. The two of them had just become empty-nesters - gloriously - when Maneely was diagnosed, just before Thanksgiving Day in 2004. Less than a year later, she was dead.

"The body wasn't even freaking cold," Marini said, when one of many indignities occurred.

Maneely had wanted to donate her body to science. Even though Marini spent months tenderly caring for Maneely as she lost her power to walk, speak, then swallow, Marini didn't have the legal authority to sign over the corpse - she had to call Maneely's oldest son to add his signature.

The couple's lack of marital status nearly put Marini into bankruptcy because of the way the couple's finances were tangled.

When dealing with banks in the aftermath, Marini said, she was able to gain sympathy if she explained that she fell behind while caring for a terminally ill fiancé. Fiancé was a word that everyone understood.

If she tried to use the term domestic partner, she was met with confusion, at best, hostility at worst.

On Wednesday, in light of the Supreme Court decision, Lambda Legal, the New York organization that represents the couples in the new Garden State Equality suit, filed a motion for the judge to throw the case out and order the state to allow same-sex marriage.

Its argument is simple:

The underlying basis of the advocacy group's suit against the State of New Jersey is that, despite the Civil Union Act, same-sex couples don't have the same rights as married heterosexual couples in New Jersey.

There's no greater proof of that, it argues, than the results of the Supreme Court case.

In that case, "married same-sex couples in states that respect their marriages are eligible for a complete, vast array of federal rights and benefits," the legal papers said. "But for ... same-sex couples in New Jersey ... who may access only civil union, full federal benefits are unavailable."

The state has until Aug. 2 to file its answer.

On Feb. 17, 2012, Gov. Christie vetoed legislation that would have allowed same-sex marriage in New Jersey. On Tuesday, prompted by the Supreme Court's ruling on gay marriage, Democrats called on their Republican statehouse colleagues to help override Christie's veto - a two-thirds majority is needed - and Democrats have until January to muster enough votes.

On Aug. 15, Superior Court Judge Mary C. Jacobson will hear arguments from both sides in her courtroom in Mercer County, where the Garden State Equality case was filed.

In their motion, lawyers for the gay couples say the judge should dismiss the case and order "New Jersey to allow same sex couples to marry."

Even though Marini says she's now retired from love, she hopes that same-sex couples will fully appreciate the importance of the word marriage.

"Marriage is a commitment to a relationship for life," she said. "It means, in good times, in bad times, in sickness and in health."


Contact Jane Von Bergen at jvonbergen@phillynews.com, @JaneVonBergen on Twitter, or at 215-854-2769. Read her workplace blog at www.philly.com/jobbing.

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