New Jersey?s civil union law ?creates a second-class status? for same-sex couples, particularly vexi

Commission Report Cites Flaws in New Jersey Civil Union Law

Published: February 20, 2008

New Jersey?s civil union law ?creates a second-class status? for same-sex couples and is particularly vexing for people in the military, transgender people, the poor and minorities, according to a report issued on Tuesday by a commission set up to review the law.

The 12-member commission included lawyers and ministers who advocate gay rights, as well as government officials from agencies that provide benefits to couples. It based its report heavily on testimony at three public hearings last year and did not make any recommendations.

But in highlighting problems encountered by hundreds of the nearly 2,400 couples who have obtained civil unions in the year since they were created, the report suggested that the law is not fulfilling its mandate of providing same-sex couples the same rights as heterosexuals.

?The commission also heard testimony that the term ?marriage,? were it applied to the relationships of same-sex couples, would make a significant difference in providing equality to same-sex couples in New Jersey,? the commission wrote. ?Civil union status is not clear to the general public, which creates a second-class status.?

The State Supreme Court ruled in the fall of 2006 that gay and straight couples must be treated equally, but left it to the Legislature to figure out how. The Legislature chose to join Vermont and Connecticut in allowing civil unions, rather than same-sex marriage; gay rights advocates have promised to challenge the law in court and to introduce a bill establishing same-sex marriage, but have not said when.

?The report details a stunning array of problems that the civil union law inflicts on same-sex couples and their children in New Jersey,? said Steven Goldstein, vice chairman of the commission and chairman of Garden State Equality, a gay rights organization. ?The civil union law is failing. The people are hurting.?

Since the law took effect, 2,329 couples have entered into civil unions in the state, and 56 more have affirmed their unions from other states. Mr. Goldstein said his organization had received complaints about how the law was put into effect from 568 couples.

Leslie Farber, a lawyer in Montclair, testified before the commission in September that she had a client who did not seek a civil union for fear of losing his job in the armed services under the ?don?t ask, don?t tell? policy (he was also afraid to file a complaint with the state?s Division on Civil Rights). Denoting ?married? on military forms, she said, would be less of a red flag.

?With the very likelihood that the military serviceman will be called to service overseas in the near future, this client wants to protect his committed life partner,? Ms. Farber told the commission. ?The New Jersey Civil Union law automatically outs someone or anyone who gets civil unioned.?

Cynthia O. Smith, a spokeswoman for the Department of Defense, said military code required the discharge of ?armed forces members who engage in or attempt to engage in homosexual acts; state they are homosexual or bisexual; or marry or attempt to marry a person of the same biological sex.? Between 1997 and 2006, 9,261 people were discharged under these rules. Figures were not available about how many had to leave the service for attempting to marry.

Also of concern were married couples in which one spouse has sex-reassignment surgery; some wondered if their marriages would be null and they would have to get civil unions instead.

Denise Brunner, 51, a plumber in New Milford who had sex-reassignment surgery in 2006, said she was afraid that if her relationship with her wife, Frances, 50, were changed to a civil union, it could affect their tax filings and financial aid for their children.

?Presently we are legally married in the State of New Jersey, and we don?t want to lose that status,? she said, adding that they have spoken publicly to show that the existence of a same-sex marriage in the state has not really changed anything. ?We?re still allowed to go into church on Sunday, and ride with the local ambulance corps and help people when they have heart attacks.?

Poor couples have also fared poorly under the law, advocates said.

?The lesson I learned was just how important this issue was for people who didn?t have a whole lot of money,? said David S. Buckel, senior counsel of Lambda Legal, the gay rights organization that represented the couples whose lawsuit led to the creation of civil unions. ?When you have the state sending the message that discrimination is O.K., there?s double discrimination for people who don?t have the resources to try to soften the blow.?

Lynn Fontaine Newsome, president of the New Jersey State Bar Association, testified before the commission that ?the legal work performed for these clients is double that which is performed for married couples to ensure that they are afforded equal rights.?

Sylvia Rhue, director of religious affairs for the National Black Justice Coalition, told the commission: ?When employers fail to recognize civil unions as equal to marriage, the couples who get hurt the most are poor couples who are often African-American couples, who cannot afford thousands of dollars to hire fancy lawyers to draft documents like wills, health care proxies, and powers of attorney.?

Gov. Jon S. Corzine, who has said he would sign a bill creating same-sex marriage, but not during a presidential election year, said the report raised ?significant concerns about whether the law has effectively granted same-sex couples the same rights and benefits of every other family in the state.?

?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,? he said in a statement.

The report is posted online at /1st-InterimReport-CURC.pdf.

photo: San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom stands between newlyweds Cissie Bonini, left, and Lora Pertle during a reception at San Francisco City Hall