Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Marriage vs. civil union: What's in a name matters - NJVoices: Steven Goldstein

Marriage vs. civil union: What's in a name matters - NJVoices: Steven Goldstein

Marriage vs. civil union: What's in a name matters
Posted by Steven Goldstein February 18, 2008 11:00PM
Today is the one-year anniversary of New Jersey's civil union law. For same-sex couples for whom today might have been a cause for celebration, this has been a year of survival through legal and personal hell. The law has wreaked havoc on same-sex couples' lives because too many employers, hospitals and others throughout the state do not recognize civil unions as marriage.

According to a report released today by the New Jersey Civil Union Review Commission - the agency charged with evaluating the effectiveness of the law - companies across New Jersey have refused to grant health benefits to the same-sex partners of their employees. Because the civil union law doesn't give same-sex couples the freedom to marry, many companies don't consider civil union partners to be spouses who qualify for health coverage. My organization, Garden State Equality, has received 564 complaints over the past year from civil union couples denied equal health coverage. Lambda Legal reports having worked with more than 100 such couples.

Considering that about 2500 couples have entered into civil unions in New Jersey during the past year, the law is failing for at least one of every five couples. That's not a mere statistic. That represents couples who pay the same high taxes as everyone else - including property taxes that hit gay families as hard as straight families - who are being denied adequate health care and financial security under the law. Some civil union couples are forced to live check to check. Other civil union couples have been deprived of their dignity and emotional security at the most critical moments of their lives.

Take the case of a couple from Montclair who testified before the commission. Over the past year, they and their two children have been to the emergency room four times. In one instance, one of the moms had a potentially life threatening condition.

Rather than process the couple as quickly as they did other couples, emergency room staff interrogated the couple about their relationship after the women said they were in a civil union. The staff didn't care that a civil union was supposed to give the couple the same rights as married spouses. As other patients were rushed into care, the civil union couple had to present every legal document under the sun.

What was the difference between the women in a civil union, and the others who received more expeditious health care? The term "civil union," no matter the intent of the law, wasn't good enough. The term "marriage" was.

For too many families across New Jersey, the warning of former New Jersey Chief Justice Deborah Poritz has proven prophetic. "What we name things matters, language matters," she wrote in her dissent in the 2006 Supreme Court decision that led to civil unions rather than marriage for same-sex couples. "By excluding same-sex couples from civil marriage, the state declares that it is legitimate to differentiate between their commitments and the commitments of heterosexual couples."

Indeed, scores of civil union couples have told first-hand stories of second-class treatment to the New Jersey Civil Union Review Commission. Particularly stunning is the saga of another Essex County resident who testified about how the phrase "civil union" negatively affected her life. When she asked her workplace for benefits for her same-sex partner, she was told the union contract did not recognize civil unions. The benefits administrator invoked a complicated federal law that provided a legal loophole.

But when she later said that she had gotten married to her same-sex partner in Massachusetts, where same-sex couples can indeed marry, the administrator changed on the turn of a dime to say, oh, you're married, we didn't know that, we'll cover you. The word "marriage" had enough persuasive weight to make the federal loophole irrelevant.

New Jersey is a fairer state than this. Gov. Jon Corzine has said he'd prefer to sign a marriage equality law next year rather than this year, lest a new state law become an issue in the 2008 presidential election.

But to same-sex couples across New Jersey, the failure of the civil union law isn't a political issue. It's personal. Same-sex families across New Jersey are suffering emotional and financial pain - sometimes devastating pain - because marriage is the only currency of commitment the real world consistently accepts.

Governor and dear legislators, if you look in your hearts and truly believe that justice delayed is justice denied, you can only come to one conclusion. The time for marriage equality is now.

Steven Goldstein is chairman of Garden State Equality, the statewide organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender civil rights.

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