December 15, 2006
Volume 34
Issue 50
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New Jersey to become third state to offer civil unions
New Jersey to become third state to offer civil unions
Transgender protections also adopted

by Robert Raketty - SGN Staff Writer

New Jersey became the third state nationwide to recognize civil unions for same-sex couples on Thursday. Both houses of the Legislature voted overwhelming to adopt the measure.

On October 25, 2006, the New Jersey 's Supreme Court had ruled in favor of several plaintiff same-sex couples and gave the Legislature 180 days to extend the same rights and benefits to same-sex couples that married heterosexual couples already enjoy. However, the court declined to define the new package of rights and benefits; allowing lawmakers to take the civil unions route.

The bill expands upon the state's limited domestic partnership arrangements, which were passed in 2004, to include benefits like the ability to take a partner's surname without going to court, inheritance rights and adoption privileges.

"Although same-sex couples in New Jersey are better off today than yesterday, they are still not equal to other couples," said Lambda Legal's David Buckel, lead attorney in the Lewis v. Harris lawsuit that resulted in the state Supreme Court decision seven weeks ago. "Their relationships will continue to be disrespected. By passing a law that marks same-sex couples as inferior, the government has paved the way for others to discriminate against them."

Steven Goldstein, chair of Garden State Equality, agreed. "In almost every other state in America, perhaps in almost any other place on earth, [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex] people would consider this the most legally significant day of their lives," he said. "But in New Jersey, the 'State That Doesn't Hate' the yardstick of satisfaction is 100 percent marriage equality for our families. We're not there yet, but we're so close now, we can taste it."

Republicans had tried to amend the bill to define marriage as the union of one man and one woman, but were unsuccessful. Therefore, the legislation leaves open the possibility of allowing same-sex couples to legally wed at a later date.

'The distance between nothing and civil unions is greater than the distance between civil unions and marriage," said Democratic Assemblyman Reed Gusciora during the floor debate.

Gov. Jon S. Corzine announced on Thursday that he will sign the new civil unions measure, which would take effect 60 days after receiving his signature.

The bill also creates a 13-member civil unions review commission, conceived by Garden State Equality, to investigate how civil unions fall short of marriage equality. The commission - the first of its kind in the nation -- will issue public reports of its findings every six months.

"New Jersey's statewide LGBT civil rights group, Garden State Equality, should be commended for a sound strategy in quickly seeking full marriage equality, while still demonstrating a willingness to work with the New Jersey Legislature," said Josh Freides, advocacy director for Equal Rights Washington. "We all would have preferred if the Legislature had done the right thing today and passed marriage equality, but there were not enough votes. The New Jersey civil union law has been carefully crafted to ensure the fight for marriage equality will continue immediately.

"The New Jersey bill makes it clear that civil unions are just another step towards full marriage equality. I am hopeful that New Jersey's ongoing campaign for marriage equality will help LGBT and allied communities across the country understand that different states will take different paths to achieve marriage equality. The path in New Jersey to date includes the creation of domestic partnerships for same-sex couples and heterosexual senior citizens, litigation, and now passage of a bill that creates a commission to examine marriage equality and enacts civil unions.

"While Garden State Equality continues the fight in New Jersey for full marriage equality, it is good that families formed by same-sex couples will be able to avail themselves of important protections when the bill becomes law."

National groups, such as the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force also praised Garden State Equality for its efforts.

"We applaud the incredible work of Garden State Equality and its chairman, Steven Goldstein, for their incredible work, for ensuring the law requires the creation of a commission to monitor the law's compliance of the court directive, and for keeping an insulting 'marriage is only between a man and a woman' provision out of the law."

Likewise, the President of the Human Rights Campaign, Joe Solmonese, said the advances for same-sex couples would not have been possible without the "tireless" work of Garden State Equality. "We are honored to stand beside them as we continue to pursue full equality for same-sex couples in New Jersey," he said.

A new Zogby poll found the 65 percent of New Jerseyans believe marriage equality is inevitable, while only 28 percent do not.

The New Jersey legislature also voted on Thursday to outlaw to discrimination based on "gender identity and expression." The vote makes the state the third most populous state in the nation to outlaw such discrimination.

The Gender Rights Advocacy Association of New Jersey hailed the measure as a major step forward. "We at GRAANJ are particularly pleased by the overwhelmingly positive vote for the legislation, which proves conclusively that effective education and common sense will tear down the walls of ignorance and discrimination," said Barbara Casbar, GRAANJ's political director.

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