Report: Civil unions make 'second-class status'

February 16, 2008 6:40:52 PM PST
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. The report stops short of recommending that the state allow gay marriage. But it does find that gay couples in Massachusetts, the only state that now allows gay marriage, do not experience some of the legal complications that those in New Jersey do.

The Associated Press has obtained a copy of the initial report, which was scheduled to be made public on Tuesday, the one-year anniversary of the state's first civil unions.

State lawmakers made New Jersey the third state to offer civil unions with a law adopted in 2006 in reaction to a state Supreme Court ruling that year that found gay couples were entitled to the same legal protections as married couples.

The civil union law sought to give gay couples those benefits - but not the title of marriage. As a part of the same law, the review commission was created to look into whether it was working.

Gay rights advocates say the civil unions do not deliver and have pledged to push lawmakers to vote to allow gay marriage. Gov. Jon S. Corzine has said he would be willing to sign such a bill into law - but doesn't want the issue to be taken up before the presidential election.

The activists say that civil unions, in practice, do not offer the legal protections that marriage does. The commission largely agreed with them.

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.

While employers in Massachusetts could legally do the same thing, most do not, according to the report.

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.

Through Jan. 19, 2,329 couples had received civil union licenses, according to the state Health and Senior Services Department.

Some social conservatives have said that the commission is slanted in favor of allowing gay marriage. The commission's 12 members included four appointed by the governor and two each appointed by the president of the state Senate and the speaker of the state Assembly. Among those public members are some of New Jersey's more prominent gay rights advocates.

The other six members represent state government departments, such as the Office of the Attorney General and the Department of Banking and Insurance.

Opponents of gay marriage have been pushing back in New Jersey. Roman Catholic churches around the state have been planning special prayers on marriage for Sunday. A major aim is to promote marriage as being between only a man and a woman.

A conservative Princeton-based group, the National Organization for Marriage, has aired radio commercials that say allowing gay marriage would undermine some religious teachings that homosexuality is wrong.