The website slate.com breaks down the contradicting logic of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s legal brief defending that states separate but equal civil union law:
Christie’s brief defends civil unions in three ways. First, it argues that the state can rationally restrict the label “marriage” to heterosexual unions because it is “preserving” the definition of the word. Second, it contends that it’s actually the feds who are now blocking gay equality by withholding benefits to civil union partners. And third, it claims that the state courts should move very cautiously when contemplating a major change in social institutions—all fine and well except that, as the state itself admits, calling a gay union a marriage isn’t much of a change anymore. In fact, throughout the brief, what’s most striking is that every last argument Christie’s administration makes, it then proceeds to blatantly contradict.
The brief starts by arguing that the state’s 2006 Civil Union Act—passed in response to a state court ruling in the same year that New Jersey had to either let gays wed or grant them all the attendant benefits of marriage—has a rational relationship to a compelling state interest, and is therefore constitutional. “To reserve the name of marriage for heterosexual couples,” says the brief, makes sense because “altering the meaning of marriage” would, in the words of the 2006 ruling, “render a profound change in the public consciousness of a social institution of ancient origin.” The definition of marriage has “far-reaching social implications.”
Oops, except then it doesn’t. The brief then does an about-face, insisting that the nomenclature distinctions have no meaning at all—an effort to show that the law is not rooted in anti-gay prejudice. A “long-standing precedent,” the brief explains, dictates “that courts look to essence, not label.” It cites a 1915 court case finding that a law’s import “lies in the essential nature of the work done rather than the names applied to those engaged in it.” The brief goes to great lengths to drive home this point, even dragging in the Bard: “Shakespeare wondered what’s in a name?; for purposes of federal criminal law, the answer is ‘nothing.’ Substance rather than nomenclature matters.” And: “A rose by any other name is still a rose.” And: “Calling a dog’s tail a leg will not give the dog five legs.”
Let’s imagine for a moment that it’s true that nomenclature doesn’t matter a whit. If that’s right, then it’s the strongest case yet for the other side. If there is nothing in the name “marriage,” then New Jersey’s Civil Union Act has no rational relationship to an important state interest. The label is the single distinction the law makes. How can that both serve a compelling governmental interest and mean absolutely nothing, at the same time?