Civil union law alters social landscape of New Jersey
Janine Casella and Rachel Roff of Woodbury, N.J., are preparing this week to tie the knot after five years together and twin sons.It won't be a true wedding ceremony. New Jersey doesn't permit marriage between same-sex couples. But a new law, prompted by a state Supreme Court decision, gives gay couples "the same rights and benefits as heterosexual couples who choose to marry."Unlike Massachusetts, New Jersey pointedly withholds the word marriage from the law permitting gay couples civil unions. It's an important distinction, and gay people are quick to bristle at the difference. Vowing to continue the fight, some activists are pressing for marriage.But for Casella and others, the legislation represents "small strides."The civil union law takes effect today. No one knows how many people will seek a civil union. The state has no data yet, and several towns, including Cherry Hill, Mount Laurel and Woodbury, late last week reported little or no interest so far.For those seeking a civil union, why is the partnership important?"To legitimize my relationship," said Casella, a Camden teacher. "And for the benefits, especially with us, with a stay-at-home mom, we really need the health benefits."Roff, who spends her days reading to, playing blocks with, and chasing after two active 17-month-old boys, agreed."It's exactly the same reason heterosexuals get married," Roff said. "You do it for legal protection. You do it for emotional bonding. You make the decision to spend the rest of your life with someone. It's not a temporary thing. She's my soul mate."Ronald G. Lieberman, a family attorney, suggested the law's reach will be expansive, covering everything from family leave to inheritance and child custody."It takes same-sex couples right up to the cliff," Lieberman of Adinolfi & Spevak in Haddonfield said. "You get everything a married couple gets, except you can't be married."Of course, since federal law does not recognize same-sex unions, those protections do not apply. A gay man, for example, would not be entitled to the Social Security benefits of a deceased partner. And there are other sticking points.David Buckel, the lead lawyer in the lawsuit that prompted the landmark civil union court decision, cautioned in a recent teleconference that civil union doesn't command the respect marriage does. He described it as "parallel status" -- one that is potentially confusing.Only two other states permit civil unions -- Connecticut and Vermont. While the New Jersey civil union law seemed to attract little widespread public opposition, the issue of same-sex couples and their families has been a hot topic recently. In Evesham, many parents protested loudly when they learned the school district was screening a diversity video for third-graders. The presentation included portraits of families with two moms or two dads.Angry parents argued the material was not suitable for 8- and 9-year-olds, and this was subject matter best taught at home. Under pressure, the district withdrew the video.Clearly, there are also those who are opposed to civil union.Len Deo, New Jersey Family Policy Council president, said the law is unfair to others who are not gay -- two sisters, for example, who live together and want to reap the benefits of civil union. And Deo charged the proponents of the new law with ulterior motives."They're not going to stop at civil union," said Deo, whose organization promotes traditional families. "They want full marriage equality."Moreover, Deo believes equality advocates want to redefine marriage so that "any combination of people," might qualify for wedded status.In Brigantine, Denny DiRenzo, a former Cherry Hill councilman, said he wouldn't want to deny any individuals their rights, but believes there is something special about marriage."We're all raised with the concept of Adam and Eve," he said. "Now, we've got Adam and Adam and Eve and Eve . . . They (homosexuals) can't procreate. Isn't that the whole purpose of marriage?"For Scott Morrison of Pennsauken, Camden County Young Republicans treasurer, the objection to civil unions centers on the inability of voters to decide the matter on the ballot."I dislike the courts deciding a whole list of issues, from abortion rights to eminent domain to same-sex marriage," Morrison said.John Tomicki, New Jersey Coalition to Preserve and Protect Marriage president, also believes "the public should be the ultimate arbiters of how marriage is defined." For Tomicki, that means a man and a woman.The coalition has launched a petition drive to press state legislators for a constitutional amendment. The amendment would decree "only the union of one man and one woman shall be valid or recognized as marriage."Still, gay partnerships are now so much a part of the fabric of contemporary society they are the subject of pop culture references.On a recent episode of Two and a Half Men, a frustrated divorcee asks an aging bachelor, "Doesn't anybody want to get married and have children?" The bachelor replies dryly, "Yes, but they're all gay."In Collingswood, Mark Henderson and Charles Dowdy -- parents of sons Xavier, 6, and Sekai, 3 -- plan a civil union this week.Henderson said the two want to secure their rights, but after nearly a decade together, they feel fully united as a couple. Henderson, 42, refers to Dowdy, 41, as "my husband.""It's nine years, and it still feels like three," Henderson said.In Woodbury, Casella and Roff, both 37, plan to have Kathy Hogan, a Haddon Township official, unite them in a civil union.They already had a commitment ceremony, a symbolic event, in 2004. It was important, Casella said, to do so before she delivered sons Kyle and Gavin."Of course, it was not legal in any manner, but for us, it was how most people get married -- committing yourself in front of friends and family, which was important to us," Casella said.
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