Are civil unions just as good as marriage? Should GLBT people be happy when the state decides to grant something like marriage? Should we consider ourselves lucky when our heteronormative society throws us a bone?
Not according to a report to be issued Tuesday by a New Jersey state commission tasked to evaluate their state’s year-old Civil Unions law, implemented by the legislature under orders from their highest court to stop discriminating against people of the same gender who want to marry. Approved unanimously by all twelve members, the report is rather damning:
A commission established to study same-sex civil unions in New Jersey has found in its first report that civil unions create a "second-class status" for gay couples rather than giving them equality.
Lovely. Enshrined in another American state’s law: second-class status for human beings.
Didn’t America decide in the twentieth century that equality before the law meant, um, equality — and not some other, second-class, type of status? And when the state Supreme Court ruled last year that all couples were entitled to all the benefits conveyed by marriage, but the legislature decided to come up with another category that wouldn’t, oh, offend people who saw their own marriages under attack because Adam and Steve were getting hitched, who could predict this outcome?
The commission held three public hearings last year where the majority of the testimony came from people who were in civil unions and said they were still not being treated the way married couples are by government agencies, employers and others.
For instance, the commission finds that many companies in the state that are self-insured, and therefore are regulated by federal rather than state law, refuse to provide health insurance to the partners of their employees.
But don’t people everywhere understand what it means when you drive away from the church, or the courthouse, or the temple, with your vehicle emblazoned by your groomsmen with the catchy slogan, "Just Civil Unionized!!" No, they don’t:
The commission also finds that many people in the state do not understand civil unions. "Civil union status is not clear to the general public," the report says, "which creates a second-class status."
The commission’s report says the misunderstanding of civil unions makes it more difficult for a child to grow up in New Jersey with gay parents, or to be gay themselves.
If you’re growing up gay in New Jersey, you can take scant comfort in the law your state has enacted. When the kids at school taunt you for being "gay," at least you know your friends who are gay moms are treated equally under the law. Except, of course, they are not.
The panel found civil unions have "a deleterious effect" on gay and lesbian youngsters and those being raised by same-sex couples.
Lucy O’Brien came to that realization during a kitchen conversation with her 17-year-old son, Tom, who is gay. She was trying to reassure him, pointing to several gay couples they know in Montclair.
"And he said, ‘But they’re not married,’" she said. "I suddenly got it that my son is acutely aware that he’s a second-class citizen."
If you are hoping to visit your civil-unionized partner in the hospital, you’d better hope the nurse on duty understands that a civil union makes you immediate family — because there is little recourse if the nurse doesn’t get it. "But that’s my civil-unionized partner" just doesn’t have the same strength as "But that’s my wife." Ask any number of people who’ve tried to see their partners in the emergency room. Ask any number of people who’ve tried to include their civil-unionized partners on their health insurance.
When civil unions became available one year ago, Gina Pastino of Upper Montclair was "thrilled" to form one with her partner of a dozen years, Naomi Cohen. But the couple are frustrated after a year of trying to explain — at the bank, the passport office and repeatedly in hospitals — that their civil union entitles them to be treated like spouses.
“People don’t understand what civil unions are," said Cohen.
Judy Ford of Port Norris formed a civil union last April to add her partner to her health insurance plan. But the medical center that employs Ford used a loophole in federal law to deny coverage to her partner, Yvonne Mazzola.
Now, because of her civil union, she would be liable for her partner’s uninsured medical bills. They might dissolve their civil union.
"It only puts us in a precarious legal situation," said Ford. "Now we have a civil union with no benefit and only detriment."
Wonderful. New Jersey has created a legal predicament that makes civil-unionized partners responsible for one another’s medical bills but ineligible for one another’s health insurance plans.
Additionally, the new civil-union law places members of the Armed Services in particular and unique jeopardy:
The requirement that same-sex couples declare civil union status, a separate category reserved for same-sex couples, exposes members of the United States military to the "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" policy.
Never fear, though, the Defenders of Marriage are here:
The state’s Catholic bishops declared today a day of prayer to defend marriage against "serious challenges" that include divorce and cohabitation.
"One of the most serious challenges is the effort to change the very definition of marriage as the union of one man and one woman in order to allow same-sex marriage," Newark Archbishop John Myers said in a letter to all pastors.
Or, there’s this view:
"The law is just a complete and utter failure," said Tom Prol, a trustee of the New Jersey State Bar Association. "It’s a failed experiment in discrimination."
And this one, from Lynn Fontaine Newsome, President of the New Jersey State Bar Association:
From the Bar’s perspective, civil unions are a failed experiment. They have shown to perpetuate unacceptable second-class legal status.
Marriage is marriage.
Civil unions aren’t.
Freedom to Marry for all, please. Now.