What 'brown' could do
for marriage equality
By ALFRED P. DOBLIN,
RECORD COLUMNIST, NorthJersey.com from the Web, July 23, 2007
THE LEGISLATURE took a politically
safe step away from embracing marriage equality last fall. The state
Supreme Court unanimously ruled gay and lesbian couples in New Jersey were
entitled to all the same legal rights as heterosexual couples. A majority
on the court ruled it was up to the Legislature to determine whether to call
those unions marriage or something else. Not surprisingly, the Legislature
went for something else.
The Legislature said "no" to marriage and "yes" to civil unions. Since
that law took effect on Feb. 19, 1,359 couples have been civil unionized.
According to Garden State Equality, 193 civil-unionized couples have reported
that their employers have refused to recognize their unions.
Lambda Legal, which argued the same-sex marriage case before the state Supreme
Court, says more than 100 couples have contacted them about having difficulties
with employers not recognizing their rights to spousal benefits. Lambda
Legal is representing two same-sex couples who have been denied spousal benefits
from United Parcel Service.
In a letter to one of the UPS employees seeking spousal benefits, UPS wrote:
"... New Jersey law does not treat civil unions the same as marriages, and the
(UPS benefits) Plan requires a dependent spouse to be a spouse as defined under
Yet the state Supreme Court specifically instructed the Legislature to provide
all the same rights of marriage to same-sex couples. By not calling it
marriage, legislators opened a large gaping wound.
David Buckel, senior counsel with Lambda Legal said, "The blood is still
Buckel said self-insured companies like UPS are not prohibited by the Defense of
Marriage Act or the Employee Retirement Income Security Act from offering equal
benefits to same-sex couples. Discrimination is an option. "It's
their choice," he said. UPS offers benefits to same-sex married couples in
Massachusetts. They also offer them to non-union civil-unionized couples.
UPS is saying its union contract is subject to collective bargaining and that
any change in benefits for union members would require negotiation. But
the state Legislature defined civil unions as equal to marriage. Call them
spouses or call them partners, in New Jersey it's supposed to be same thing.
It's not. As former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Deborah Poritz said
in her dissenting opinion in the same-sex marriage case: Language matters.
Calling "marriage" a "civil union" codifies inequality.
Enter Governor Corzine. On Friday, he sent a letter to Michael Eskew,
chairman and CEO of UPS, urging him to extend marriage equality benefits to all
UPS employees. Corzine wrote: "Apart from any purely legal
considerations, the provision of employee benefits to civil union partners on
the same terms as spouses would be more than a symbolic gesture of your
company's commitment to eliminating discrimination. Spousal benefits are a
key element of the financial and physical well-being of working couples and
Corzine is right. But as Buckel noted, "Not every couple will get a letter
from the governor."
Steven Goldstein, chairman of Garden State Equality, also applauded Corzine's
letter while emphasizing that more and more New Jersey civil unionized couples
are being denied spousal benefits. "It's an epidemic," Goldstein said.
There is little hope for a cure in the near future. Speaking to The
Record's editorial board on Wednesday, Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts,
D-Camden, stated his personal support for marriage equality. But he also
was adamant that no changes in the language of the state's civil union law would
be forthcoming in the Legislature.
It remains a politically charged issue. Last year's closely fought U.S.
Senate race may have prevented Corzine from publicly supporting marriage
equality. Democrats did not want to galvanize Republican and
conservatives. This year's 120 open Legislative seats have the same
chilling effect on marriage equality. Next year there's a presidential
election. It's always an election year. It's always going to be
difficult to do the right thing, the just thing -- to call it marriage.
Buckel said, "With inequality comes inequality." That's what's happening
in New Jersey.
Michael Purdue, president of Teamsters Local 177, which represents the UPS
employees, said, "We would not refuse an improvement to the health care plan
outside of negotiations." The only thing that is blocking civil-unionized
UPS union employees from receiving spousal benefits is UPS.
If UPS can guarantee delivery in 24 hours, it could guarantee benefits to these
employees in an equally short time span. It should not require the
governor's intervention, Lambda Legal, or collective bargaining. "Brown"
needs to go lavender.
Alfred P. Doblin is the editorial page editor of The Record.
Contact him at email@example.com.