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N.J. Civil Unions
Fall Short, Panel Told

N.J. Civil Unions
Fall Short, Panel Told

New Jersey's civil unions law has failed to provide all the benefits of marriage to at least one in five same-sex couples, a gay rights group told a panel Wednesday that will report its findings to the governor and legislature. More than 300 of the 1,514 same-sex couples who have joined in civil unions have complained to Garden State Equality, the state's leading gay rights group, about employers denying them benefits under the law.

New Jersey's civil unions law has failed to provide all the benefits of marriage to at least one in five same-sex couples, a gay rights group told a panel Wednesday that will report its findings to the governor and state legislature.

More than 300 of the 1,514 same-sex couples who have joined in civil unions have complained to Garden State Equality, the state's leading gay rights group, about employers denying them benefits under the law, said David M. Smith, the group's deputy director.

''If this law is a failure and people's rights are at stake, why must we wait to fix the problem?'' asked Thomas H. Prol, a state bar association trustee and former cochairman of the group's Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Rights Committee.

Smith and more than 20 others shared their experiences with the civil unions law -- all negative -- during a hearing Wednesday to review the law's effectiveness. The law is supposed to provide those who take advantage of it with all the benefits that married couples enjoy.

Those appearing before the Civil Union Review Commission included parents of gay adults, gay rights advocates, lawyers, and gay couples, some with children in tow. All urged the legislature to change the law to include the word ''marriage,'' and no one spoke in favor of reducing gay couples' rights.

Craig Ross said that when he lost his white-collar job and tried to get benefits on his partner's plan, the couple were denied despite their civil union because they aren't ''married.''

''Calling our relationship and our legal status a civil union, I believe, gives my company an easy out,'' Ross said. ''Calling it what it is -- a marriage -- makes denial of those benefits obvious for what it is: discrimination.''

Ross and Richard Cash are among 30 same-sex couples who signed a letter to the governor and legislative leaders describing financial and emotional damage caused by what they call shortcomings in the civil unions law.

New Jersey legislators passed the law in December, after the state supreme court ruled it unconstitutional to deny same-sex couples access to marriage rights and protections, and it went into effect in April. The legislation also created the special commission, which held the first of three public hearings Wednesday. It is to report its findings twice a year.

Beth Robinson, chairwoman of Freedom to Marry in Vermont, which has had a civil unions law similar to New Jersey's for more than seven years, cautioned that the passage of time will not bring marriage equality.

''This is not a privilege, this is not a right, this is about justice,'' said Tom Barbera, a labor leader in Massachusetts, the only state that allows same-sex couples to marry, a right created by the top court in that state.

Len Deo, president of a group called the New Jersey Family Policy Council, complained last week that the Civil Union Review Commission was created ''to turn civil unions into full-fledged marriage.''

The group is pushing for a state constitutional amendment that would ban marriage between same-sex couples. The legislature would have to support an amendment before it went to a popular vote, but the Democrats, who control both houses, oppose such a vote. (Angela Delli Santi, AP)

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