Last night, during the first public hearing of the New Jersey Civil Union Review Commission, Garden State Equality presented evidence it believed shows “the failure of New Jersey’s civil union law to provide equality as real marriage would.”

Thirty civil-unioned couples from across the state presented a joint letter to state leaders at the hearing.

The couples were chosen to represent more than 300 couples who have complained to Garden State Equality, a leading gay rights group in the state, that employers won’t recognise their civil unions.

In the letter, addressed to the commission as well as to New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine, Senate President Dick Codey and Assembly Speaker Joe Roberts, the couples wrote:

“The failure of the civil union law has affected our lives deeply.

“It is not a political issue to us, but a personal one. The law’s failure is harming not only us, but also the children of those of us who are parents.

“We cannot wait for the equality that the civil union law was supposed to provide, but does not.

“The law’s deprivation of equality has wreaked its worst havoc on same-sex families with fixed incomes, particularly in health care,” they added.

“Because employers in New Jersey are not recognising civil unions on a consistent basis, the civil union law has, in effect, established one system of health care coverage for same-sex couples and another for straight couples.”

An expert from Vermont also attended the hearing and testified that civil unions in Vermont “still don’t work like marriage, seven years after Vermont enacted a civil unions law.

“It’s not true that as time passes, civil unions will be accepted like marriage,” Beth Robinson, chair of Vermont Freedom to Marry and an attorney who has worked for years with same-sex couples, said in a statement released before the hearing.

“Marriage is a word of difference.”

Likewise, experts from Massachusetts testified about the differences that have developed between the two states.

“As a labour leader whose very job involves keeping his finger on the pulse of LGBT workers all across Massachusetts, and as an advocate in constant touch with every civil rights organisation and agency throughout the state, I am in a unique position to learn about, and report to you, complaints that same-sex married couples have had with ERISA,” Tom Barbera, a long-time leader in the Massachusetts AFL-CIO and in the AFL-CIO’s Pride at Work organisation, said in a statement released prior to Wednesday night’s event.

“From the immediate weeks after May 17, 2004, when marriage equality took effect on Massachusetts, right on through today, ERISA has barely been an issue in Massachusetts, certainly not compared to New Jersey,” he added.

“Without the term ‘civil union’ or ‘domestic partner’ to hide behind, employers would have to acknowledge that they are discriminating against their employees because they are lesbian or gay.

“And employers in a progressive state like Massachusetts are loathe to do that, as they would be in a similarly progressive state like New Jersey were you to enact a marriage equality law.”

Some of the night’s most compelling evidence, however, came from Jodi Weiner, a New Jersey resident who testified that the benefits administration company working with her union had refused to grant her and her partner benefits under New Jersey’s civil union law, citing the federal ERISA loophole.

When the company learned Weiner and her partner had actually gotten married in Massachusetts, the company relented and agreed to give the couple benefits.

“The difference between the words ‘civil union’ and the word ‘marriage’ could not be greater,” Weiner said in a statement released before the hearings.

“The words ‘civil union’ were not good enough for us to get equality in New Jersey , but the word ‘marriage’ is. Members of the commission, and elected officials, we can all talk about how the civil union law is supposed to work just like marriage. But in my case and others, it doesn’t work that way in the real world.”

Chrys Hudson © 2007 GayWired.com; All Rights Reserved.