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First day of same-sex marriages in New Jersey brings confusion

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CHRIS PEDOTA and CHRIS PEDOTA | The Daily Wildcat Cindy Meneghin and Maureen Kilian apply for their marriage license at the Butler Municipal Building in Butler, New Jersey, on Monday, October 21, 2013. (Chris Pedota/The Record/MCT)

HACKENSACK, N.J. – Whether the first day of same-sex marriage in New Jersey was a joyous celebration or a heartbreaking disappointment depended on location and the presence of a sympathetic ear.

In Hawthorne, Jeff Gardner was able to say “I do” to Ari Lash, his partner of 13 years, on Monday after he showed the proper paperwork to a Passaic County judge, who waived the state’s 72-hour waiting period for nuptials. Christian Reinhardt and Marijan Por did the same in a court in Bergen County and tied the knot hours later as their 8-year-old daughter looked on.

A judge in Bergen County dashed the hopes of high school sweethearts Sophie Papanikolaou and Teri Noel of Fair Lawn, however, telling them they didn’t meet the legal requirements and had to wait until Thursday to make their long relationship a legal marriage.

“I’m frustrated, I’m furious, I’m hurt,” Papanikolaou said. “We expected a rubber stamp. We’ve been together 34 years. Why would he (the judge) give a flying leap?”

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Confusion over how New Jersey’s marriage laws apply to gay couples seemed to be the key problem as municipal officials and eager couples tried to make sense of it all. As of Thursday there was no gay marriage in New Jersey. On Friday there was, after the state Supreme Court rejected Gov. Chris Christie’s request to hold off on allowing same-sex marriages while his administration appealed a lower-court ruling.

The registrars and clerks, who faced the first applicants Monday morning, seemed to be waiting for instructions from the state that never came. They were left to improvise when couples showed up asking to get married.

“We’re operating under a lot of assumptions here,” said Dawn Cetrulo, Ridgewood’s health supervisor. “The state has not contacted us with any specifics on forms or protocols. We’re just figuring the process is going to be the same.”

The Ridgewood Health Department fielded several calls Monday morning from couples asking specific questions about the process and rumors that the 72-hour waiting period between getting a license and getting married had been waived. Officials there said they had yet to receive a single email from the state registrar’s office since Friday, when the governor’s office announced it would not challenge the Supreme Court decision.

Many towns didn’t receive any applications for same-sex marriage licenses, catching some officials by surprise.

“I figured we’d be bombarded,” said Tracy Adams, the Saddle Brook registrar.

In Clifton, four same-sex couples applied for marriage licenses in the city clerk’s office on Monday. One couple, Aida and Deborah Cubano, were all smiles while answering application questions from Clerk Nancy Ferrigno.

“Are you related by blood?” the clerk asked.

“No, but we do get asked if we’re sisters a lot,” Aida Cubano said, clutching the stroller of their 2-year-old son, Noah.

The Cubanos entered into a civil union 10 years ago in Vermont, an arrangement they say is a frequent source of confusion among family members and on forms where the only options for marital status are “single” or “married.”

“It will be nice to say, ‘Yes, we’re married, yes, she’s my wife,’ and leave it at that,” Aida Cubano said.

William Law King arrived at Passaic City Hall first thing Monday morning with James, the man he calls his wife, to apply for a marriage license. City Clerk Amada Curling told them state law requires they wait three days after getting a license to get married.

“We had a church service at the First Presbyterian Church _ I promised my grandmother that we would do that,” King said of their civil union ceremony a few years ago. “The Passaic Fire Department came down with a truck and we had a little Mardi Gras parade. We’ll have to do this whole thing again.”

Other couples took their marriage licenses to court to get a waiver of the three-day rule. Superior Court Judge Eugene Austin of Bergen County said he denied some applications for waivers because the couples failed to show evidence of an emergency, such as pending military deployment, or legal proof of a domestic partnership, civil union or marriage in another state.

That’s what happened when Papanikolaou and Noel excitedly arrived at the courthouse in Hackensack from Fair Lawn on Monday morning. “We didn’t expect a no,” Noel said.

Noel told the judge they were seeking the waiver because in their 34 years together, they have run into several hurdles and were suspicious that something else might arise in the next three days.
“It’s really because of the distrust that we are seeking a waiver,” she said in court.

Austin said that was not a valid emergency under state law and that he did not have the authority to waive the waiting period for those reasons. They would have to wait.

“I wish you all the kindness in the world,” Papanikolaou said to the judge before storming out of the courtroom.

The couple later said the 72-hour waiting period serves no purpose other than to give couples a chance to back out if they are not sure about the marriage contract they just signed. That doesn’t apply to her and Noel, who already are in a civil union and have been together since they were teenagers, Papanikolaou said.

“It really should have been just a matter of converting our commitment to marriage,” Noel said. “There’s going to be a happy ending. We’re not people who give up. We don’t give up, do we, So?”
“Nope,” Papanikolaou said with a defiant smile.

While rejecting some waivers, Austin did grant the waiver request of Reinhardt and Por on Monday afternoon after the Ridgewood couple produced documents proving they have been in a domestic partnership since 2004 and were married in Connecticut in 2010.

Two hours after getting their waiver, the couple of 33 years were married at the Unitarian Society of Ridgewood, which opened its doors at noon to any same-sex couples wishing to be wed. More than 30 friends and neighbors gathered to watch the two Slovenian immigrants in pinstriped suits look lovingly into one another’s eyes and promise to spend the rest of forever together.

When the Rev. Kathleen Green declared the couple married, some in the audience burst into applause and others into tears. The couple kissed, and their daughter, Zora, jumped through the air with excitement through a blanket of blown bubbles.

Afterward the newlyweds met individually with their guests, who enjoyed red velvet cupcakes as well as cookies, shaped like New Jersey, iced with rainbow frosting.

“It was long overdue, this day,” Reinhardt said.


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