New Jersey lawmakers created that law to try to fulfill a 2006 state Supreme Court order that committed gay couples be given the same legal protections and benefits as married couples. The couples say that in places like insurance offices and hospital emergency rooms where marriage rights come into play, the civil union doesn't cut it.
The suit offers several examples: lesbians who had to pay thousands of dollars for the non-birth mother to adopt their child; couples who have found they have to carry binders of legal documents to prove their relationships in case of emergency. Not being married, they say, makes their children wonder why society doesn't value their families as much as others.
One plaintiff, Louise Walpin, said she had to explain to a judge - and everyone in the courtroom - when she was called for jury duty recently that she is in a civil union, not married. "I had to out myself in front of strangers," she said at a news conference Wednesday to announce the suit. She wonders whether she was left off the jury or been denied jobs because she's a lesbian.
And there was the story of John Grant, who was struck by a car in New York City. The Asbury Park man's civil union partner, Danny Weiss, says he was told he wasn't entitled to make urgent medical decisions for Grant. Instead, Grant's sister was summoned to the hospital in the middle of the night. New York lawmakers voted last week to recognize gay marriage. But before that, the state recognized unions from other states.
"Nobody should have to endure the indignity that we did," Weiss said Wednesday.
The lawsuit, filed in state court by the national gay rights law firm Lambda Legal and the New Jersey gay rights group Garden State Equality, came less than a week after New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a law allowing gay marriage in that neighboring state. But it's the latest step in a nine-year legal battle in New Jersey.
States afford gay couples a hodgepodge of rights. New Jersey is one of seven states that offer the same legal protections of marriage, but call it either civil unions or domestic partnerships.
Once New York's new law takes effect next month, six states and Washington, D.C., will make full marriage available to gays.
Another state recognizes gay marriages entered into elsewhere and three offer some legal protections for gay couples. But 41 have laws or constitutional amendments barring gay marriage.
Advocates made a serious push in 2009 to persuade the Legislature to legalize same-sex matrimony before Republican Gov.
Chris Christie took office in January 2010. The measure, opposed by the social conservative groups, fell short. Stephen Sweeney, the Democratic State Senate President, recently apologized for abstaining on the vote.
Christie's arrival forced advocates to shift strategies. Instead of pushing for marriage rights through the Legislature, they headed back to the court.
Steven Goldstein, chairman of Garden State Equality, said Wednesday that he expects Christie would veto a bill to allow gay marriage.
On Tuesday, Christie said on Millennium Radio's "Ask the Governor" show that the state will defend the civil union law.
"I don't want same-sex couples to be deprived of legal rights," he said, adding, "Marriage is an institution that has centuries-old implications in both religious and cultural institutions. I believe it should remain between one man and one woman."
He also said he is open to improving civil unions, which some 5,400 couples have entered into.
But Goldstein said Wednesday that the only way to make civil unions work would be to replace them with marriage. He and other advocates for gay marriage say the problem isn't in the details of the civil union law, but rather comes because it's separate classification from marriage that most people don't understand.
"We'll accept civil unions," Goldstein said, "if he will change his marriage" to a civil union.