New Jersey joins group of civil union states
February 22, 2007
The cause of equality for gay and lesbian marriage has gained much ground, but we're not there yet. On Feb. 19, another major step occurred when New Jersey's new civil union law took effect for same-sex couples.
The problem is, we used to consider civil unions a huge victory, but now gays and lesbians are frustrated that we are being told to settle for less than full equality.
Last year, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that the state must legislatively give gay and lesbian couples the same rights afforded to married couples. Several legislators immediately introduced bills to legalize marriage for gay couples, but in the end, they could squeak through only enough support for civil unions.
New Jersey joins three other states with similar laws -- Vermont, Connecticut and California. It is no surprise that these victories are occurring on the coasts, but support for civil unions are now supported by a majority of Americans in many states around the country.
Civil unions may sound the same as marriage. But for gay and lesbian couples, they are just another example of historical discrimination repeating itself -- separate but equal laws.
Unlike marriages, civil unions are not "portable." The rights granted to same-sex couples are good only in the state that recognized them. A gay couple cannot go to New Jersey, get a civil union, hop on a flight home and still be a legal couple back in any other state. Even the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that civil unions are "separate but equal" and that nothing less than full equality would suffice.
Unfortunately, over the past two years, state after state has prohibited gay and lesbian couples from enjoying the freedom to marry. Some states have amended their constitutions to enshrine discrimination by banning same-sex marriage. A few states have gone even further.
In 2004, voters in Michigan thought that when they approved a constitutional ban on marriage equality, they were limiting only marriage, not civil unions, as well.
But, for the first time anywhere in the country, conservative judges on the Michigan Appeals Court recently ruled that, effective immediately, same-sex couples must be stripped of the domestic partner health insurance that public employers, such as the University of Michigan, provide.
When voters and policy-makers try neatly to separate the issue of marriage from all other social, legal and psychological benefits of family, it can backfire.
But, as in New Jersey, the push for full equality continues. With time, hopefully more Americans will agree that gay and lesbian couples want the same things for their partners and their children as heterosexual couples do.
Sean Kosofsky is director of policy for Triangle Foundation, Michigan's leading civil rights organizations for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.