United Parcel Service will be extending medical coverage to partners in civil unions in New Jersey. But only after some soul searching and some high-profile lobbying by New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine and other state officials.
UPS, which is based in Atlanta, had cited a provision in its Teamster contract that allowed it to provide coverage to spouses of employees &emdash; including those in married same-sex couples in Massachusetts &emdash; but not to couples in civil unions, according to the Newark Star-Ledger. It cited New Jersey law, which it says treats civil unions differently than marriages.
While UPS has reversed course &emdash; it issued a statement on July 30 (following the receipt of letters from the governor and others) announcing it would offer coverage because it had "received clear guidance that at least in New Jersey, the state truly views civil union partners as married" &emdash; the question of whether civil unions are the same as marriage remains an open one.
In the six months since the state's civil unions law has been in place, the state's largest gay rights advocacy group, Garden State Equality, says it has received 176 complaints from couples who say their unions were not being honored, the Ledger reported.
The reason, advocates say, is that the law created a separate but equal status for gays and lesbians.
"The Legislature said: You folks aren't worthy of marriage. That has an impact," said David Buckel, a lawyer with the gay rights organization Lambda Legal, told the Ledger. "If the New Jersey Legislature would just take back the invitation to discriminate, UPS would do the right thing."
Steven Goldstein of Garden Equality blamed the state Legislature.
"Civil unions are never in our lifetime going to be respected by employers like marriage," he said.
Juan Melli, who runs the progressive political blog Blue Jersey (where I am an occasional front-page blogger), also blames the state Legislature. In a post on his blog, he called the civil unions law an "awkward response" to a state Supreme Court ruling that required that gay and straight couples be treated the same under the law and that civil unions "signaled something different."
"Instead of changing a couple of words in the statues, the legislature created an entirely new class of relationships, called civil unions, and needed 60 pages to detail how they are just the same as marriages," he wrote.
The law, as Melli and others note, is an utter failure, a half-measure designed to avoid angering the conscious of social conservatives in a blue state.
Back in March, I interviewed several local couples for my papers, the South Brunswick Post and The Cranbury Press, who had entered into civil unions about the law and its impact. They all said essentially the same thing: They were glad the state was taking the step, but they thought the state was not going far enough. And they were concerned that the distinction between civil unions and marriage would later become a problem.
None of the three couples I interviewed have had problems like those experienced by the UPS employees and New Jersey couples have it a lot better than gay and lesbian couples in many other states. But they were all worried. After all, there are no guarantees that they will not run into the same walls later.
That's why the ACLU and Public Interest have joined together to "put a human face on the issue of marriage for same-sex couples" by producing 10 short videos of real couples telling their stories and streaming them at 10couples.org. The project "aims to show Americans that denying marriage protections to gay and lesbian couples and their families is unfair and harmful."
"At 10Couples.org, Americans get to see that families headed by same-sex couples are pretty typical American families," Matt Coles, director of the ACLU's Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Project, said in a press release. "Our families make the same commitments and face the same struggles, but we don't have the safety net that government provides through marriage, and this can cause terrible harm."
The ACLU says that 26 states have constitutionally banned same-sex couples from marrying, with many "prohibit(ing) many other forms of legal protections for the families of same-sex couples as well."
"When people realize what it means when lesbian and gay couples are shut out of legal protection for their families, they understand that it's unfair to continue to treat committed couples as legal strangers," Coles said.
That's why it is imperative that people who support civil and human rights become active in New Jersey and other states that have civil union laws and in those states considering sanctioning civil unions to fight for same-sex marriage.
Separate but equal is just not good enough.
Hank Kalet is a poet and managing editor of the South Brunswick Post and The Cranbury Press. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. See his blog, Channel Surfing, at www.kaletblog.com.
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