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Tuesday, June 19, 2007

NJ legislator urges compliance with civil unions law

Associated Press Writer
June 18, 2007, 6:09 PM EDT

MOUNT LAUREL, N.J. -- One of New Jersey's top lawmakers is pushing for better compliance with the state law that says gay couples should get the same legal treatment as married couples.

Assembly Speaker Joseph J. Roberts Jr. sent letters earlier this month to several state agencies, business organizations and insurance companies, calling for better enforcement and compliance with the law, which took effect in February.

Since then, 1,092 same-sex couples have applied to join in civil unions, according to the state. The gay rights group Garden State Equality has heard from 148 couples who say their rights have not been granted the benefits married couples get from their employers or insurers.

The Division of Civil Rights has been getting about 90 calls a month with questions about the civil unions law. Last week, the division got its first formal complaint, from Robert S. Kleid, a physician's assistant from Atlantic Highlands, who claims that his employer improperly denied him the chance to get health insurance for his partner. His complaint was against Minimed of Chester, N.J., for which The Associated Press could not find a telephone listing.

"The civil union law was not enacted to be a symbolic gesture," Roberts wrote. "It was passed with the expectation that its various provisions would be complied with and respected."

He did not accuse any company or organization of breaking the law.

Roberts, D-Camden, said he wrote about 15 letters in a move that he said was unusual for him. Recipients included the state Attorney General's Office, the Department of Labor, several health insurance companies and business groups such as the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce.

"I expect every state government agency to be as aggressive as possible in making sure the law is followed," he said.

He asked business organizations to help their members comply and insurers to explain if there are regulatory reasons that keep them from complying.

Jim Leonard, senior vice president at the Chamber of Commerce, said its members, mostly the state's largest employers, have generally extended benefits to same-sex couples for years.

Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey, the state's largest health insurer, issued a short statement saying it is following the law.

Steven Goldstein, chairman of Garden State Equality, said his group did not ask Roberts to send the letters _ and did not even know about them until Monday.

"It's a real acknowledgment that this law is not working," Goldstein said.

The law grew out of a decision last October by the state Supreme Court, which ruled that same-sex couples must have the same rights as married couples in many areas, including adoption and inheritance rights and the right to be covered by employer-offered health insurance the same way that spouses are. The court, though, left it up to lawmakers to decide whether to call the institution "marriage" or something else. The Legislature responded by passing the civil unions law quickly.

Goldstein's group pressed lawmakers to call it marriage, and has vowed to campaign for that again next year.

Also Monday, a state commission formed to study civil unions held its first meeting. Goldstein, the vice chairman of the commission, said it would meet monthly and hold additional public hearings.

Both supporters and opponents of gay marriage think the commission is likely to recommend allowing gay couples to marry.

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