Commission Decries Civil Unions As Unequal

This story was written by Cait Callahan, Daily Targum
Steven Goldstein, the chair of Garden State Equality, an organization lobbying for marriage equality for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender community, called the Civil Union Act the biggest failure in social experimentation in the history of New Jersey.

"The law segregates, discriminates and humiliates the very people it is supposed to protect," he said.

Goldstein is also the vice chair of the Civil Union Review Commission, put together to evaluate the effectiveness of the law, according to a report put out on Feb. 19 by the commission.

The act, passed in December 2006, was intended to give LGBT couples all the same benefits and responsibilities of marriage given to heterosexual couples. But according to the report, civil unions fail to provide equal rights for same-sex couples.

Lynn Fontaine Newsome, the president of the New Jersey State Bar Association, echoed Goldstein's feelings as she testified at a public hearing in 2006, which was discussed in the commission's report.

"We believe the civil union law created a burdensome and flawed statutory scheme that fails to afford same-sex couples the same rights and remedies provided to heterosexual married couples as required," she said. "From the bar's perspective, civil unions are a failed experiment."

A statement released by Gov. Jon S. Corzine on Feb. 19 said although the report was not finalized, it did raise significant concerns.

"I look forward to reviewing the interim report in more careful detail and working with the commission and the Legislature on ensuring that the basic principles of equal protection under the law as secured by our Constitution are afforded to everyone," Corzine said in the statement.

The commission's report listed many reasons why the act failed to provide equal rights to the LGBT community, stating that it created a feeling of second-class status among the community, and also makes it more difficult for LGBT individuals to accept their sexuality. The report stated this is because the legislation makes civil union couples seem as if they are "less than" heterosexual couples.

Goldstein said one of the biggest problems is the way civil unions are viewed by employers.

"Employers all across the state refuse to recognize civil unions equivalent to marriage," he said.

The commission's report explained that under the Employment Retirement Income Security Act, companies that are "self-insured," or create their own insurance plans, are only held subject to federal law, not state law.

Since legislation making civil unions legal has only been passed on a state-by-state basis, ERISA creates a loophole for "self-insured" companies that choose not to recognize civil union partnerships. As a result, many people in these partnerships are denied insurance coverage for their partners.

A registered nurse quoted in the report said the hospital where she works denied her partner coverage, citing ERISA as the reason why.

"My partner and I have seriously considered dissolving our civil union, because it has put us in a tremendously precarious financial position," she said. "Now in the event that something happens with her and she has no insurance coverage, our entire estate is in jeopardy, rather than just half."

But a testimony from employees living in Massachusetts, the only state to legalize gay marriage, revealed that simply using the term marriage in place of civil union could provide a solution to the problem of marriage inequality.

It does not change the fact that employers are still allowed to withhold benefits from the partners of same-sex couples, but it does change the way employers feel about it, according to the report.

"ERISA has barely been an issue in Masachusetts," said Tom Barbera, a Massachusetts labor leader who works for the Service Employees International Union, in the commission's report.

"It's not that ERISA-covered employees in Massachusetts don't understand that federal law allows them to refrain from providing benefits to same-sex married couples," he said. "It's that employers also understand that without the term 'civil union' or 'domestic partner' to hide behind, if they don't give equal benefits to employees in same-sex marriages ... employers would have to acknowledge that they are discriminating against their employees because they are lesbian or gay."

Jim Gardner, a spokesman for Corzine, said the governor is planning on signing gay marriage into law after the presidential elections should the bill come to his desk. Since Corzine cannot propose legislation himself, Gardner said it is unclear if the bill will be passed in the near future.

But Goldstein said he remains hopeful that the legislation will be passed by the end of the year.

"We have one of the most extensive grass root networks in the state with thousands of members all across the state," he said. "We have made dramatic gains all across the state Legislature toward marriage equality, and we're now only a handful of votes away in the state Legislature."
© 2008 Daily Targum via U-WIRE