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Same-sex couples ready for

civil unions

 

By Bob Considine, Courier News (www.c-n.com), Feb. 18, 2007

 

At the stroke of midnight tonight at City Hall in Lambertville, a handful of same-sex couples are expected to take the first steps toward formalizing their partnership in New Jersey.

Since they live a stone's throw outside of town, Lee Rosenfield and Jack Fastag won't be there to begin their own paperwork for the first civil unions in the state.  But they will be there as witnesses and supporters because this moment will hit close to home in other ways.

"We just want to be there for an historic moment," Rosenfield said.  "I definitely appreciate the excitement around it and people wanting to be there the minute it becomes legal."

Monday marks the first day same-sex couples can fill out applications for a civil union license in New Jersey.

Since it is Presidents Day, a state holiday, Lambertville Mayor David DelVecchio decided to appease those couples who have waited long enough for the legalization of their union by opening the town offices from midnight to 1 a.m.

They're doing the same in Maplewood and in Asbury Park, where one city worker cleverly labeled the occasion "Precedents Day."

"I think it's important," DelVecchio said, "to send a message that you're going to be supportive of the new rules.  And we are."

But while grateful for the New Jersey Supreme Court's decision in October to allow same-sex couples to form unions that carry the benefits of marriage, some in the community feel that it should simply be called marriage.

At the same time, gay marriage opponents are lobbying lawmakers to let New Jersey voters to decide whether marriage should be defined as a union between a man and a woman.  The language of love may only become more distorted 72 hours after the first civil union applications are filled and filed -- the same amount of time that buffers the completion of a marriage license and a marriage.

"It's nice to know that we're moving forward and the state of New Jersey is a progressive state that doesn't want to discriminate," said Gina Genovese, a Long Hill Township committee member who was, last year, the first openly gay mayor in New Jersey.  "But if you look throughout history, marriage has always had some discrimination around it.  It's always been a control issue.  We are being recognized by in the state of New Jersey, but that's not to say we shouldn't have the word marriage."

Separate institutions

Lambertville residents Dr. Elizabeth Recupero and her partner, Judy Levinson, received their civil union in Vermont in 2000.

Five years later, Recupero was honorably discharged from the U.S. Military for violating the Pentagon's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy.  Recupero said she and the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network had to fight tooth and nail over the five-year investigation just to get word "honorable" on her discharge papers.

So forgive Recupero if she sees the words "civil union" and "marriage" as something more than semantics -- especially with growing momentum for a repeal of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy during a continued time of war.

"I think it will be overturned," Recupero said.  "But it kind of ticks me off that we'll be giving gays equal rights in the military, but not under contracted marriage.  I would like the word changed to marriage.  If not, you've already reduced it.  Or it should be that heterosexuals have civil unions and religious marriages.  If people are caught up with the idea that marriage should be between men and women, then keep it within the church and keep church and state separate."

Civil unions are not observed by the federal government and other states are not obliged to recognize them either under the Defense of Marriage Act.

"It needs to be equal across the board and that's what is infuriating to me," Recupero added.

The differences between marriage and civil union start on the application.  The word "wedding" is replaced by the word "ceremony," for example, on one of the notes on the civil union form.  The omission of the word "marriage" also creates complications for workers with health benefits.  Depending on the company and its insurance program, some have provisions for married spouses.  Some even have conditions for registered domestic partners, for which there are more than 4,500 in New Jersey.

But a civil union is something entirely new, different and yet to be observed.

"It's very clear that are questions that will have to play out," said Laura Pople, president of the New Jersey Lesbian and Gay Coalition.  "We know people who are interested in having a civil union but are hesitant because they don't know what it means in terms of getting benefits from their employers.  There are some real concerns on how it will play out."

Adoption and immigration issues are also expected to play out for many couples under civil unions, rather than marriage.  Even treatment at hospitals and private institutions that give privileges to married people may differ for those under a civil union.  Genovese, who witnessed oral arguments for and against civil unions in New Jersey Supreme Court, said there will be continued efforts to address legal issues brought about by civil unions, however.

"Within this bill, there's a provision that the state is going to look at how things are going every six months," she said.  "There are things that aren't going to work right, right away."

A new opposition

Most in the gay and lesbian community are grateful that Gov. Jon S. Corzine signed civil unions into law on Dec. 14, and are optimistic that their civil unions will eventually be observed as marriages.

"New Jersey is pretty close to a dream," said Steven Goldstein, chairman of Garden State Equality.  "I feel we're likely to get real marriage equality in the next couple of years."

Gay marriage opponents sense that progression as well, although they're not nearly as happy about it.  A newly formed assembly of church leaders and activists called The Trenton Group launched a petition drive on Monday calling for New Jersey voters to have the decision on whether marriage should be defined as a union between a man and a woman.

"We just can't sit on the sidelines and be poo-pooed by the governor and our legislative leaders without letting people have a voice in this," said Len Deo, president of the New Jersey Family Policy Council.

The Trenton Group's goal is to get enough signatures for the Legislature to consider a state constitutional amendment that would prevent the state Supreme Court or future legislature from legalizing same-sex marriages.

Sixty percent of each house of the Legislature would need to approve the proposed amendment by next August -- or the question could appear on the November 2008 ballot if both houses pass it this year.

A Quinnipiac University poll of 1,392 voters, released in December, found that New Jersey residents oppose same-sex marriage, 50 to 44 percent.  But it also showed they opposed amending the constitution to ban same-sex marriages, 58 to 37 percent.

Nontheless, the Trenton Group believes the state Supreme Court went beyond interpreting the Constitution with its decision to allow civil unions last year.

"We're very concerned with what's been happening in Trenton," Deo said.  "We believe the majority of New Jerseyans feel how we feel."

The gay and lesbian community, however, also appears ready to fight -- and spread the word of its recent successes in New Jersey elsewhere.  At 7p.m. Tuesday, it will highlight its own Civil Unions/Momentum to Marriage week by "Crossing the Delaware to Progress," a short walk along the New Hope, Pa.-Lambertville bridge to commemorate where they have been and where they're going.

"The Delaware River might as well be 1,000 miles wide in terms of how Pennsylvania and New Jersey treat gay people," Goldstein said.

"New Jersey has one of the best sets of gay rights laws in the country," he added.  "Pennsylvania does not even have a law that outlaws discrimination against gay people.  It's astonishing.  We're just thrilled that Lambertville is taking the lead."

 

 

 

 

 

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Last modified:  08/02/2008