The N.J. civil-union law, six months on
via: To Form more Perfect Union: Marriage Equality News
[photo caption: 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."
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.
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."
[...] Link: The Philadelphia Inquirer