In wake of wave-making New York marriage law, gay legal group takes aim at civil unions as inadequate

(Image: Kellie Parker/Flickr)

Lambda Legal, a New York-based organization committed to winning gay civil rights through the courts, announced in a press release Tuesday that it would challenge New Jersey’s 2006 same sex civil unions law for failing to bring full equality to gay residents of the state. Lambda, which is teaming with New Jersey LGBT group Garden State Equality, will refer to government studies and press investigations that document the way employers have failed to recognize couples entered into a civil union and how civil unions have been ignored or misunderstood by authorities, often in instances involving critical medical decisions.

Colorado nearly passed a civil unions bill this spring that its main sponsors, Sen Pat Steadman and Rep Mark Ferrandino, acknowledged fell short of full equality. Steadman told the Colorado Independent that, given the fact that gay marriage is outlawed in Colorado by a state constitutional amendment, he thought the civil unions bill was a vital first step, that it granted critical rights and access to benefits that gay citizens of Colorado should no longer go without. Steadman and Ferrandino are for now committed to introducing the civil unions bill to the legislature again in 2012, although pages are turning fast in the story of gay marriage in the United States.

The action in New Jersey comes in the wake of what many observers are calling the game-changing passage in Albany of New York’s gay marriage law last week. Reports on how the bill overcame Republican opposition have focused on Governor Andrew Cuomo‘s personal commitment to the bill and his clout among the official and unofficial members of the state’s political class.

Although New Jersey has been a leader among the states in providing domestic partnership and civil unions rights to gay couples, the present governor, national GOP up-and-comer Chris Christie, has in the past said he would switch directions and promote a federal constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. Last year, as the Tea Party grew across the nation and Republicans swept into Congress at an historic rate, Christie’s position seemed less remarkable. Now suddenly, in the long shadow cast by New Jersey’s famous neighbor state, the position seems out of step. Christie has tellingly been backing civil unions since the New York vote as a sort of gay marriage prophylactic.

“In our state we’re going to continue to pursue civil unions,” he told David Gregory on Meet the Press this past Sunday. “I am not a fan of same-sex marriage. It’s not something that I support. I believe marriage should be between one man and one woman. That’s my view, and that’ll be the view of our state because I wouldn’t sign a bill that, like the one that was in New York.”

The learning curve on civil unions in New Jersey, however, seemed to underline its stop-gap quality and the second-class status of the people it covered.

Some employers in New Jersey, such as shipping company UPS, initially said that contracts with labor unions committed them to only grant benefits to “spouses” not civil union partners. The company’s human resources head admitted there was confusion.

“Over the past week, we have received clear guidance that at least in New Jersey, the state truly views civil union partners as married. We’ve heard that loud and clear from state officials and we’re happy to make this change,” UPS’s Allen Hill told reporters in July 2007.

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