Friday, June 1, 2007

NJ Civil Unions Don't Grant Equality

At 100-Day Mark, N.J. Civil Unions Don’t Grant Equality

Jun. 01, 2007

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — Craig Ross and Richard Cash had been together as a couple in a long-distance relationship for nearly five years when New Jersey moved to allow same-sex couples to enter civil unions intended to give them the legal benefits of marriage.

So Ross relocated from Florida, and the couple looked forward to what they thought would be full recognition of their relationship.

“This was the state where our relationship would finally be recognized,” Cash said.

The Franklin Township residents got their civil union on April 12. But Ross, 46, and Cash, 54, say it hasn’t translated into the benefits they’d been expecting. Specifically, after Ross was laid off from his job at an insurance company, Cash’s employer refused to give Ross health benefits, forcing Ross to pay $445 per month on health insurance.

“We’re very frustrated,” Ross said, speaking from their Somerset County home.

As New Jersey reached the 100-day mark Wednesday since the state’s civil union law went into effect, Ross and Cash’s situation is one of the glaring examples that advocates of same-sex marriages point to when they argue that civil unions aren’t enough.

After the civil union law went into effect, 852 same-sex couples applied to form civil unions in New Jersey. In that same time period, a leading gay rights group said it has received complaints from 114 couples about how employers and insurers refused to recognize civil unions.

“New Jersey’s civil union law is not providing equal rights to same-sex couples on anything near a consistent basis,” said Steven Goldstein, chairman of Garden State Equality.

Lee Moore, spokesman for Attorney General Stuart Rabner, said the state hasn’t received civil rights complaints concerning civil unions, but has received about 90 inquiries per month from people having problems obtaining either health or pension benefits.

Cash didn’t want to identify his employer, but described it as a large financial services and technology firm based out-of-state. Goldstein said most problems he’s heard about stem from private employers who are governed by federal laws that don’t mandate benefits to same-sex couples.

“Companies with federally regulated benefit plans are allowed—but not required—to deny coverage to their employees’ same-sex partners,” said Moore, who added that the state has encouraged employers to provide coverage to same-sex couples even if they’re not required to.

State and local governments are mandated to abide by the civil union law.

New Jersey adopted its civil unions law in December after the state Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional to deny same-sex couples access to marriage protections.

The unions offer the legal protections of marriage, but are not called marriages. Vermont, Connecticut and California have similar laws. The only state where gay couples can get legally married is Massachusetts.

Saundra Toby-Heath, one of those who sued New Jersey for the right to marry, was denied benefits for her partner, Alicia Heath-Toby.

“It hurt me,” said Toby-Heath, of Newark, who has worked for a major shipping company for more than 20 years. “I just would like to have some kind of recognition from a company I have given so much of my life to.”

State Sen. Loretta Weinberg sponsored New Jersey’s civil unions law even though she supports calling it gay marriage. She said calling it marriage wouldn’t have passed the Legislature.

“I’ll look forward to that day when we call it marriage, but this was the best we could do at this point,” said Weinberg, D-Bergen.

Republicans have introduced several measures to unravel the law, but no measures have advanced in the Democratically controlled Legislature, where its leaders have vowed not to consider proposals to take rights away from anyone.

Assemblyman Richard Merkt, R-Morris, has argued that the Supreme Court ruling that led to civil unions showed “astonishing judicial contempt.”

“The small number of civil unions taking place in New Jersey since the law was enacted reflects the reality that the legislation was always the private concern of a tiny, but vocal, band of special interest activists, rather than a response to any broad public movement,” Merkt said.

The civil union legislation also created a special commission that will study the law and annually report findings to the governor and the Legislature. The commission has not met yet.

A spokesman for Gov. Jon S. Corzine said the administration is monitoring how the law is being implemented and encourages people to report complaints.

But Weinberg said there’s not much the state can do about federal law, no matter what the state calls same-sex unions.

“The civil unions law gives every right and responsibility that we in the state were empowered to give,” Weinberg said.

Goldstein, who’s still pushing for same-sex couples to be allowed to marry, said calling it marriage would at least force employers to state they’re not giving equal benefits to married couples.

“It’s the only currency of commitment the real world accepts,” Goldstein said.


© 2007 The New York Blade | A Window Media Publication

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