Saturday, June 30, 2007

Son of separate but equal

An article in today's Washington Post examines New Jersey civil unions and whether they really do offer all the benefits of marriage.
[M]ore than four months after New Jersey's civil union law went into effect, [Craig] Ross, 46 and [Richard] Cash, 54, are among the many same-sex couples severely disillusioned with their prospects for legal equality. Citing federal regulations that allow many employers to effectively ignore state laws regarding corporate benefits, the Fortune 500 company where Ross has worked as a computer specialist for 21 years denied the couple's request for joint coverage.


A recent study by Garden State Equality, New Jersey's leading gay advocacy group, indicated that as many as one in eight of the 1,092 same-sex couples who have registered for civil unions there have been denied all or part of the benefits they hoped to gain from the law. That is particularly significant because New Jersey, as the first state outside New England to approve civil unions, was seen as a bellwether in gauging how they would take root outside the bluest of the blue states.


Most vexing for gay couples in New Jersey is that they have little legal recourse. Smaller companies that buy private health insurance plans for their employees are compelled to offer them to same-sex couples under the state's civil union laws. But most legal experts agree that federal regulations give companies with self-funded insurance plans -- a group covering 55 percent of the country 105 million working-age employees -- the power to ignore state laws regarding corporate benefits.

And when companies choose to follow federal laws, they often cite the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as a union between a man and woman as a reason to deny coverage to same-sex couples. New Jersey officials estimate that almost 90 percent of the reports of noncompliance to date have been linked to companies covered by these federal laws.


After Bruce Moskovitz, 54, and John Fellin, 59 -- who work at the same major pharmaceutical company in New Jersey -- registered their civil union on April 1, they were told by their employer that they could name each other as beneficiaries of their pensions. But while married spouses receive 50 percent of their deceased partner's corporate retirement pensions for life, the two men together for 24 years were informed that the their surviving partner would be granted similar payments for only 60 months.

There seems to be some indication that this may just be a quirk born of a new law, where no-one's sure how everything plays out:
"If a company believes it is covered by federal law, our answer when we are asked whether they have to provide coverage to civil union couples is "we don't know yet,' " said J. Frank Vespa-Papaleo, director of the New Jersey Division of Civil Rights. "It's a lawyer's answer that people don't want to hear, but we're talking about uncharted territory because the law is just not clear on this."


The denial rate in New Jersey may turn around. In the only other two states with civil unions -- Connecticut and Vermont (New Hampshire is set to begin offering them in January) -- initial confusion about the bill also resulted in rough starts. But officials and activists in both states are quick to point out that while some couples continue to be denied benefits by companies citing federal laws, most have provided them because of the region's liberal corporate culture.

Which is great for gays living in a region with a liberal corporate culture, but for others, maybe not so much.

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