DCR launches enforcement initiative to prevent marriage license discrimination

TRENTON, NJ — N.J. Attorney General Matthew J. Platkin and the Division on Civil Rights announced Oct. 6 the launch of a new marriage equality enforcement initiative to ensure that municipal governments across New Jersey do not discriminate against or exclude LGBTQ individuals seeking to obtain marriage licenses.

As part of the initiative, DCR is issuing notices of violation to five New Jersey municipalities: Estell Manor, Fairview, Hanover, Linden and South Toms River. According to the DCR, these municipalities’ websites have published marriage licensing information that limits the availability of licenses to same-gender couples and excludes marriage license applicants with a nonbinary gender identity. 

In each case, the notices of violation advise that language either previously or currently posted on the municipalities’ vital records webpage, marriage application instructions or marriage applications themselves violate the Law Against Discrimination. Among other things, the LAD prohibits places of public accommodation from discriminating on the basis of real or perceived sex, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity and gender expression. The LAD also makes it unlawful for a place of public accommodation to display or post any communication or notice indicating that any of their offerings are unavailable based on a person’s sexual orientation, gender, gender identity and gender expression.

This marriage equality enforcement initiative is designed to ensure municipalities comply with the LAD by providing gender-inclusive and nondiscriminatory marriage licensing applications and instructions to the general public.

“Marriage equality is the law here in New Jersey. But when municipalities use language indicating that individuals cannot obtain a marriage license based on their sexual orientation or gender identity, they violate that basic promise,” Platkin said. “The marriage equality enforcement initiative we announce today reflects our deep commitment to ensuring that, in both word and deed, municipal governments do not discriminate against couples seeking marriage licenses on the basis of sexual orientation, gender, gender identity or gender expression.” 

The alleged discriminatory language used by municipalities to describe marriage licensing requirements was first flagged in “Marriage Equality in New Jersey: A Latina/o/x Perspective,” a joint report issued in July 2022 by the Latino Action Network, Hudson P.R.I.D.E. Center and Garden State Equality. The report found that the websites of certain municipalities expressly limited marriage licenses to “opposite-sex couples.”

DCR subsequently conducted its own investigation, and confirmed the posting of discriminatory language on the municipalities’ marriage-related webpages.

The specific offending language cited by DCR varied from municipality to municipality. It included statements that only “opposite sex” couples may enter into marriage, and application fields that prohibit nonbinary people for applying for licenses unless they misgender themselves as “male” or “female.”

“For over 100 years, it has been unlawful for places of public accommodation in New Jersey to post or display communications restricting access to services based on protected characteristics,” DCR acting Director Rosemary DiSavino said. “DCR thanks our community partners for elevating the importance of website inclusivity. We will not tolerate LGBTQIA+ discrimination or any gender-based discrimination, and will do everything in our power to ensure that all 564 municipalities comply with the LAD.”

Among other things, the notices of violation issued by DCR warn each municipality that the information published on their websites violated the LAD, and that such violations could result in financial penalties of up to $10,000. The notices also contain an offer of settlement in each case. The offer of settlement explains that, if the municipalities do not contest the facts as set out by DCR, they can resolve the issue by entering into an assurance of voluntary compliance agreement that requires, among other things, that they: update their websites comply with the LAD and provide comprehensive marriage information; update their written policies pertaining to nondiscrimination consistent with the LAD; provide training to all municipal employees involved with drafting website language and in issuing marriage licenses on compliance with the LAD; and make a payment to DCR in lieu of a penalty.

“At Garden State Equality, we know that passing pro-equality laws is a huge step — but it’s only the first step in the long process of creating a truly equal society,” Garden State Equality Executive Director Christian Fuscarino said. “We applaud the attorney general’s office for this initiative, which brings us closer to ensuring not only legal equality, but also lived equality, for all New Jerseyans.”