Separate is Never Equal: Why New Jersey Must Enact Marriage Equality

Yesterday, the Judiciary Committee of the New Jersey State Senate voted 7-6  in favor of marriage equality, allowing for the bill to move forward to the full Senate to vote this coming Thursday. New Jersey already has a civil unions law for same-sex couples, and many wonder why this is not good enough. These couples are getting their equal rights, while not trampling on the “traditional” definition of marriage, right? Wrong. Civil unions are essentially a “separate but equal” tactic, one that NAACP Chairman Julian Bond affirmed before the Judiciary Committee yesterday has not worked in the past, and does not work today. Civil unions still allow for discrimination, which would not be acceptable if the same word – marriage – were applied for same-sex couples as it is for opposite-sex couples.

I was looking at the website of Garden State Equality this morning, and found no better argument for marriage as opposed to civil unions than this:

Today, same-sex couples in New Jersey can enter into a “civil union.” People often define civil unions as providing all the state rights, benefits and responsibilities of marriage but without the name “marriage.” But in the real world, civil unions do no such thing.

Since New Jersey’s civil union law took effect in February 2007, many employers across New Jersey have refused to recognize civil unions as equal to marriage, and therefore do not grant equal health benefits to partners of employees. Employers and hospitals say that if the legislature intended for the civil union law to be the same as marriage, the legislature would have used the same name.

Because these employers and hospitals don’t recognize civil unions as they would marriage, many same-sex couples go without adequate health insurance – a horror in this economy. And because of the real-world disparity between civil unions and marriage, some hospitals do not allow civil union partners to make medical decisions for one another, or even to visit one another in the emergency room.

If New Jersey’s civil union law were a person, it would be arrested for committing fraud.

To be clear, civil unions will never achieve the acceptance and equality of marriage. Look at Vermont, which enacted the country’s first civil union law in 2000 and invented the term “civil union.” For nine years, Vermont waited for civil unions to grow into the equal of marriage, but it never happened. That’s why Vermont changed its civil union law to a marriage equality in 2009, and why every U.S. state that first enacted a civil union law has changed its law to a marriage equality law. As Beth Robinson, a prominent Vermont attorney and civil rights leader, testified before the New Jersey Civil Union Review Commission: “Based on the Vermont experience, I can tell you that it’s just not true that if enough time passes, civil unions will achieve parity with marriage. Time does not fully mend the inequality inherent in two separate institutions.”

One New Jersey worker told the Commission that her union said no when she asked for benefits for her partner under New Jersey’s civil union law. But later, when she happened to tell the union that she and her partner had also gotten married in Massachusetts – the one state where same-sex couples can marry – the labor union, based right in New Jersey, immediately changed its mind and granted the benefits. The word “marriage” made the difference.

The failure of New Jersey’s civil union law is having devastating real-world consequences. Take the heartbreaking case of a civil-union couple in Central Jersey, Louise and Marsha. They have raised two children with profound special needs –one child with Asperger’s and the other child with severe mental and physical developmental disabilities – in addition to their two other children. Louise and Marsha needed all the health care they could get to take care of their family.

But when Louise was looking for jobs, one prospective employer after another told her: We don’t provide health benefits to couples in civil unions. Louise and Marsha wound up going into hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt to take care of their children. Last year, one of their children passed away.

“We’ve been together for 20 years,” Louise points out. “We’ve raised four children, and in circumstances where most people would have separated or divorced. I don’t know what a marriage is if it’s not what we have, and I want that legal recognition.

Indeed, our society should be celebrating Louise and Marsha. But because of a civil union law that falls short of marriage equality, they and their children are denied equal protection under the law.

Civil unions also pose psychological harm to children. Across New Jersey, children of civil union couples are stigmatized by their parents’ having a lesser label than of opposite-sex married couples. Some children are coming home in tears. How ironic in New Jersey, the national pioneer in allowing same-sex couples to adopt.

As our campaign has progressed, clergy have become some of the most impassioned supporters of marriage equality. In fact, clergy across New Jersey from 18 different religions, denominations, movements and faith traditions favor marriage equality. They believe that preventing same-sex couples from marrying under State law is an intrusion into their religious practice. Without a marriage equality law, New Jersey has taken away their sacred right as clergy, and the right of their various faiths, to decide for themselves whom they want to marry under State law.

And clergy understand that the marriage law as it stands in the State of New Jersey is not religiously neutral. The current law reflects the religious beliefs of those who oppose allowing same-gender couples to marry, which are not the beliefs of every faith community. A religiously neutral law would leave it up to every religion and every clergy member to marry legally whichever couples they want or don’t want to marry.

The bill before the New Jersey legislature actually strengthens the freedom of religion with language that underscores the First Amendment guarantee that religions and clergy will never be forced to perform ceremonies that contradict their beliefs.

Clergy understand, as a majority of all New Jerseyans understand, that if New Jersey defers equality, more families like Louise, Marsha and their children will get hurt.

That’s why we reject the notion that good things come to those who wait.

At Garden State Equality, we believe good things come to those who seek equality today.

If you live in New Jersey, I urge you to contact your Senator and tell him or her to vote YES on marriage equality on Thursday. As we saw in New York, many Senators who voted no  said that they were swayed by the calls and emails that came from their district – even though we know that civil rights should not be subject to “popular opinion.”  If civil rights for African-Americans were left up to popular opinion in the 60s, who knows where we would be today? Even if you don’t live in New Jersey, it can’t hurt to tell their Senators why you support it, or to tell your personal stories. Every voice counts.

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