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Civil unions
Civil unions
by Jennifer Vanasco - SGN Contributing Writer

Civil unions are a failed experiment.

I didn't say that. Lynn Fontaine Newsome did.

Newsome is president of the New Jersey State Bar Association, and she was testifying in September about the effectiveness of the civil union law in New Jersey.

Needless to say, she doesn't think they are working well.

Nor does Ed Barocas, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, who said, "By creating a separate system of rights & the civil union law has failed to fulfill its promise of equality."

And in the end, neither does the New Jersey Civil Union Review Commission itself, which concluded last week that the idea of civil unions confuses the public and establishes a "second-class status" for the Gays and Lesbians who are bound together under them.

Civil unions are a failed experiment. We have tried them, and they have failed.

This is important, because state governments are often considered labs for the federal government. The idea is, try something out on a smaller scale in the various states. If it works, consider it on the federal level. If it doesn't work, try something else.

New Jersey is instructive because of the sheer number of problems the law has had in its year of existence. The State Supreme Court instructed that Gays and Lesbians must be treated equally, leaving it up to the legislature to determine how.

The legislature, in turn, granted Gays and Lesbians civil unions instead of marriage.

New Jersey has 2,329 couples in civil unions and 56 who have affirmed unions from other states; the New York Times reports that 568 couples have complained to Garden State Equality that they have not, in fact, been treated equally.

Those complaints have ranged from human resources computer systems having no category for "civil unions" to military members who are afraid to be "unioned" lest they be outing themselves under "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," to companies directly violating the law because they didn't understand that unions granted the same state rights as marriage.

Happily, not only do we have a few failed civil union experiments (Vermont experts testified as well), but we have one very successful equal marriage experiment: Massachusetts.

The Massachusetts experts who testified said that their state had none of the issues of New Jersey.

Before the provocative results of these experiments, many of us felt that civil unions might be a fine idea. Like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, we thought, just give people their full rights and call it anything you want. Who cares if it's called marriage? A word is just a word. If labeling this packet of rights "civil unions" is what it takes to bring equality to Gays and Lesbians, then for heaven's sake, call that packet "civil unions."

Unfortunately, the experiment of New Jersey proves that the words matter very much.

Civil unions really are perceived as separate and unequal, both by the people who get "unioned" and by the lawyers, officials and civil servants who need to deal with the tangles civil unions create.

Additionally, though, New Jersey gives us an inefficiency argument that might help sway fiscal (if not social) conservatives. Why force thousands of businesses to change established forms, computer programs and policies to accommodate civil unions, when forms, programs and policies are already in place for marriage?

Wouldn't just calling Gays and Lesbians "married" be easier for everyone concerned?

In a way, it's great that New Jersey decided on civil unions first, because they took the time to review the policy. Civil unions in New Jersey gave people a chance to see what a world with heterosexual marriage and homosexual civil unions looks like - by watching New Jersey struggle with it, we've gotten a chance to kick the tires and look under the hood, to discover the certainty that this vehicle won't move anyone forward.

Now we have proof. Marriage is more than just a word that will make us "feel" equal - marriage is a word that will actually move us toward equal. Which means we can no longer be contented by presidential candidates who tell us that they will give us all of the rights without the word.

I mean, just imagine the taxpayer dollars that would need to be paid to change thousands of federal forms to include "civil unions" when "marriage" is there already and is a word everyone already understands.

Civil unions is a failed experiment. There is no need to try it on a national level - it has already been tried and failed. We need federal marriage.

Jennifer Vanasco is an award-winning, syndicated columnist. Email her at Jennifer.vanasco@gmail.com. She blogs daily - and edits - the Gay political blog VisibleVote08.com.

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