Thursday, September 27, 2007

Civil Unions A Sham NJ Commission Told

Civil Unions A Sham NJ Commission Told
by Newscenter Staff

Posted: September 27, 2007 - 12:01 am ET

(New Brunswick, New Jersey) A commission created by lawmakers to examine the effectiveness of New Jersey's civil union law has been told that it is a sham leaving same-sex couples and their children with virtually no protections.

The state Supreme Court ruled last year that same-sex couples must have the rights as opposite-sex married couples but left it to the legislature to decide whether that should be done through marriage or civil unions.

Lawmakers chose civil unions, and gay and lesbian couples married in areas where same-sex marriage is legal, were regarded as in a civil union in New Jersey. The law went into effect in February. (story)

When the law was passed the legislature set up the committee to track the success of the law. Since then commissioners have heard from same-sex couples that the law has no teeth.

The most detailed accounts of the laws failings were presented Wednesday night when the commission held hearings in New Brunswick.

Thirty couples from across the state who have had civil unions presented a letter calling on the commission to go back to the legislature and recommend gay and lesbian couples be given full marriage.

Each of the couples said in the letter employers are refusing to recognize their civil unions.

"The failure of the civil union law has affected our lives deeply," the letter addressed to the commission as well as to Governor Corzine, Senate President Dick Codey and Assembly Speaker Joe Roberts, said.

"It is not a political issue to us, but a personal one. The law's failure is harming not only us, but also the children of us who are parents. We cannot wait for the equality that the civil union law was supposed to provide, but does not," the letter said.

"The law's deprivation of equality has wreaked its worst havoc on same-sex families with fixed incomes, particularly in health care. Because employers in New Jersey are not recognizing civil unions on a consistent basis, the civil union law has, in effect, established one system of health care coverage for same-sex couples and another for straight couples."

Garden State Equality said the 30 couples are representative of the more than 300 same-sex couples who have complained to it that employers won't recognize their civil unions.

State records show that 1,514 same-sex couples have had civil unions since the law went into effect.

The Civil Union Review Commission also heard from Jodi Weiner who learned first-hand the difference the word "marriage" makes.

Weiner testified that her employer refused to grant her and her partner benefits under the civil union law, citing a loophole in the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA).

But when the company learned Weiner and her partner had actually gotten married in Massachusetts, the company relented and agreed to give the couple benefits.

"The difference between the words 'civil union' and the word 'marriage' could not be greater," said Weiner.

"The words 'civil union' were not good enough for us to get equality in New Jersey, but the word 'marriage' is. Members of the commission, and elected officials, we can all talk about how the civil union law is supposed to work just like marriage. But in my case and others, it doesn't work that way in the real world."

The commission also heard that civil unions are not working Vermont, the first state to allow them.

Responding to those who believe the civil union law will work if we just give it time, Beth Robinson, chair of Vermont Freedom to Marry and an attorney who has worked for years with same-sex couples in Vermont.

"Gay and lesbian couples in Vermont are still denied a host of critical legal protections that our laws provide to heterosexual, married couples," said Robinson.

"It's just not the case that as time passes, civil unions will achieve parity with marriage. Time cannot and does not mend the inequality inherent in the two separate institutions."

Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders (GLAD), the New England LGBT civil rights organization that won marriage equality in Massachusetts, told the commission that: "Despite the federal discrimination, we have found in Massachusetts that marriage has persuasive weight.

The commission will deliver a report to the legislatures on the effectiveness of civil unions. It is generally expected that the report will call for the legalization of same-sex marriage in New Jersey.

Gov. Corzine has already stated that he believes it is only a matter of time before lawmakers revisit the law and change the term "civil union" to "marrriage".

© 2007

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