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Editorial: N.J. Civil Unions

Still second class

When New Jersey passed a much-heralded civil union law in 2006, it was supposed to give the equivalent of marriage to same-sex couples. A year later, too often that has not been the case, according to a troubling report released by the New Jersey Civil Union Review Commission.

"Civil union status is not clear to the general public, which creates a second-class status," the report said.

Steven Goldstein, chairman of Garden State Equality, which advocates same-sex marriage, says the law "may be the biggest failure in civil rights experimentation in the history of New Jersey."

Serious flaws cited in the report must be addressed immediately to ensure that specific rights are also available to same-sex couples.

But with poll after poll showing that New Jersey residents are not ready to accept gay marriage, it would be more destructive to that movement were it to attempt to force the issue at this time.

New Jersey became the third state to offer civil unions. The law was passed after the state Supreme Court ruled gay couples should have the same legal protections as married couples. But the statute stopped short of making gay marriages legal.

After three public hearings, a 12-member panel appointed to examine the law's impact has concluded it is falling short.

More than 2,300 couples have received civil union licenses. But companies whose benefits plans are regulated by federal rules, rather than state law, overwhelmingly are refusing to provide health insurance to employees' same-sex partners.

Also, unlike with the universal term


, civil union must be explained repeatedly to employers, insurers, bankers, teachers and hospital personnel. That's not always practical during an emergency. Couples are often asked to show proof of their relationship - a request seldom made of heterosexual couples.

Same-sex couples are frustrated, and rightfully so, by a law that was supposed to afford them the same treatment as spouses.

The law says couples in civil unions cannot be discriminated against in adoption, hospital visits, inheritance, property rights, insurance and questions of keeping a partner on life support.

But Goldstein said there have been more than 600 complaints from couples that their civil-union rights are being violated.

State Attorney General Anne Milgram must aggressively prosecute anyone who violates the law. At the same time, New Jersey must better educate the public and urge all employers to voluntarily comply with the law.

When United Parcel Service refused last year to offer gay employees benefits for partners, Gov. Corzine helped persuade the company to change its policies. More companies should follow suit.

Institutions have a responsibility to learn what a civil union means and the rights it extends to same-sex couples. That includes revising forms to include a marital status checkoff box for civil union.

Civil union may not be perfect, but it is a step toward what same-sex couples ultimately want: "marriage." That day may come. New Jerseyans are increasingly dropping their objections. But for now, the state must work harder to guarantee gay couples virtually all of the legal protections and benefits enjoyed by married pairs. It's the law.