Monday, August 6, 2007

The N.J. civil-union law, six months on

The N.J. civil-union law, six months on
Many same-sex couples want more recognition.
By Jennifer Moroz
Inquirer Trenton Bureau

Heather Aurand and Gabriael "Nickie" Brazier (right), who entered into a civil union in February, with their three children. United Parcel Service, where Brazier is employed, agreed to spousal health-care benefits for Aurand.
Last Monday, Gabriael "Nickie" Brazier and Heather Aurand of Toms River got the news they had been waiting months to hear.

Ever since the couple of seven years entered into a civil union in February, they had been trying to convince United Parcel Service, where Brazier works as a driver, that Aurand should get spousal health-care benefits.

Last week, the company agreed.

"We're obviously pleased with what UPS did," said Aurand, 36, a stay-at-home mom to the couple's three small children who had been paying $340 a month to buy basic medical insurance. "It's just unfortunate it took this long."

New Jersey's fledgling civil-union law was created to give same-sex couples the same rights - on the state level, at least - as their married counterparts. Since the law took effect Feb. 19, more than 1,300 couples have taken advantage of it.

But almost six months later, many of those couples say that getting others to recognize their new rights - without the label of "marriage" - remains a struggle.

"If the Legislature called it marriage to begin with, we wouldn't have had this issue and a lot of other people wouldn't still have it," Aurand said. "There are people here in New Jersey who don't even know what a civil union is."

The state Division of Civil Rights, which is in charge of investigating violations of the civil-union law, says that while it has fielded hundreds of inquiries, it has received only four formal discrimination complaints. Division director Frank Vespa-Papaleo, who also chairs a panel monitoring the law's success, said he expected complaints to rise as more people entered unions and learned their rights.

For now, at least, same-sex couples seem to be taking their concerns directly to gay-rights organizations.

Garden State Equality, which has led the charge for gay marriage in New Jersey, has received more than 200 complaints from couples claiming their civil unions were not being respected. And Lambda Legal, a national legal advocacy group for gays, lesbians and others, says it is working with more than a hundred couples on problems related to civil unions.

Some of those problems involve finances. Couples also have reported issues with hospitals' respecting their right to have access to their partner's medical information - or bedside.

But both state civil-rights officials and gay-rights activists say the majority of problems involve employers that have refused to provide health-care benefits to civil-union partners.

Some companies, they say, aren't familiar with the requirements of the law yet.

Others simply don't want to comply.

Still others - large companies that self-fund their insurance - are allowed, under federal law, not to extend benefits to same-sex partners.

But those companies, gay-rights activists say, are not prevented from following what they say is the spirit of the state law.

Atlanta-based UPS relied on its interpretation that civil-union partners in New Jersey were legally different from married spouses when it denied spousal benefits to same-sex hourly workers under their union contract.

The company, which already covers civil-union partners of nonunion employees, reversed itself after two employees, including Brazier, appealed - and Gov. Corzine got personally involved. In a July 20 letter to company chief executive Michael Eskew, Corzine said that in denying spousal benefits, UPS was contributing to "the inequitable treatment of committed, same-sex couples that the New Jersey law is intended to eradicate."

Some gay-rights activists say the very public reversal of such a large company could be a watershed moment. Others are doubtful.

"We're looking at going forward one family at a time, one company at a time, working very slowly and painfully over the next couple months and years," said David Buckel of Lambda Legal.

Craig Ross of Franklin Township, Somerset County, is still hoping his employer will have a change of heart.

Ross said the company - a Fortune 500 tech firm he did not want to identify - has refused to give health benefits to his partner, Richard Cash, since the couple entered into a civil union in April.

"I had hoped they would do the right thing," said Ross, a computer administrator. "I was 21 years with this company, and they denied me what Joe Shmo on the street with five kids and a wife that they hired in the mailroom would get automatically."

Bruce Moskovitz, a clinical researcher for a pharmaceutical company he didn't want to name, also hopes his employer will "make the right call."

Moskovitz and his civil-union partner, John Fellin, work at the same company, so spousal health-care coverage is not an issue. The problem arose when Moskovitz, 55, tried to sign up Fellin to receive his pension benefits should he die.

The company told him he could - as long as Fellin, his partner of 24 years, was named simply as a beneficiary, not a spouse.

"I'm cutting the company some slack right now because it's just too new," Moskovitz, of Lambertville, said. "I think what's happening at this point is they simply haven't had a chance to digest it."

Moskovitz's experience and those of other gay couples will be reviewed by a special commission created by legislators to gauge the law's success. The panel is scheduled to deliver its first report to the Legislature in December.

"What we're trying to do is explore: Are civil unions working? Are there deficiencies?" said Vespa-Papaleo, the panel's chairman.

The vice chairman, Steven Goldstein, chairman of Garden State Equality, already has answered those questions.

"The failure of this law is astounding," he said. "Civil unions in New Jersey are an invitation to discriminate. . . . The only way to give gay couples equality is to give them marriage."

It doesn't look like that will be happening any time soon.

Forced by an October state Supreme Court ruling to grant same-sex couples the same rights as married couples, the Legislature consciously opted not to call the union "marriage." Legislative leaders said there wasn't enough public support.

Senate President Richard J. Codey (D., Essex) said there still isn't.

"I think we're still a ways away with that debate," he said. "All rights don't happen overnight, but in New Jersey, we've made great strides."

Many in the gay community agree that while the new law may not be perfect, it's still a major step forward.

Kathy Hogan, the openly lesbian former deputy mayor of Haddon Township, called it "good news and bad news."

"The good news is this is how far we got," she said. "The bad news is that we didn't get further."


Civil Unions in New Jersey
As of July 18, or roughly the first five months of the civil-unions law:

Total statewide: 1,359

Female-female: 850

Male-male: 509

Camden County: 120

Burlington County: 60

Gloucester County: 42

Reaffirmations of civil unions or marriages performed outside New Jersey (Vermont, Massachusetts, Canada): 48

SOURCE: State Bureau of Vital Statistics and Registration, New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services


Civil Union Review Commission
The New Jersey law establishing civil unions created a panel to monitor how well the law is working. The commission will hold three hearings in the coming months to take public comments - one each in South Jersey, central New Jersey and North Jersey.

The South Jersey hearing is scheduled for 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Oct. 10 in Dennis Flyer Theatre at Camden County College in Blackwood.

Contact staff writer Jennifer Moroz at 609-989-8990 or

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