Civil unions just first step, says local gay-rights activist

Civil unions just first step, says local gay-rights activist

The ink was barely dry on his certificate of civil union to Daniel Gross, and Steven Goldstein, chair of Garden State Equality, was feeling tense. Less than 48 hours after the ceremony, performed just after midnight Monday by Lizette Parker, the deputy mayor of Teaneck, in the township office of state Sen. Loretta Weinberg, Goldstein was fielding one call after another. But the rabbinical student, gay activist, former television producer, and self-proclaimed "proud, kippah-wearing, observant, progressive Jew" was not ready to claim victory. (Unlike many same-sex couples seeking to take advantage of the new law, Goldstein and Gross did not have to observe the 7′-hour waiting period required of all couples applying for a license because the state recognized their ’00’ civil union in Vermont; the pair were married that same year in Montreal.)

Daniel Gross, left, and Steve Goldstein stand under the chuppah at their ’00’ wedding in Montreal. The pair celebrated their civil union just after midnight on Monday.

"It’s a bittersweet time for Daniel and me and other gay couples in New Jersey," said the Teaneck resident of the state legislative approval of civil unions, granting same-sex couples here all the rights, benefits, and protections of marriage. "We want marriage, and civil unions are only a step, albeit a significant step."

New Jersey, the third state in the nation, behind Vermont and Connecticut, to sanction civil unions, approved the legislation, co-authored by Weinberg (D-37th Dist.) and state Sen. Richard Codey (D-‘7th Dist.). The action followed a state Supreme Court ruling in October that determined that the state constitution guarantees same-sex couples the same rights and benefits of heterosexual married couples but deferred to the democratic legislative process the decision of what to call a legal commitment between two people of the same gender. In December, Gov. Jon S. Corzine signed the law that paved the way to gay unions, with the legislature declining to call the arrangement "marriage." Only Massachusetts permits gay and lesbians to marry; California and New York allow couples to register as domestic partners whose rights fall far short of both marriage and civil unions.

But, argued Goldstein, "in the real world," civil unions don’t cut it. "Hospitals, employers, and other institutions may not recognize people who are civil-unionized and may not understand what the term means and say, ‘We don’t care. You’re not married.’ Marriage is the only currency of commitment that is universally understood by all, the key that opens doors to all the rights."

While it is "heartening to hear that New Jersey took a step in that direction, I am not fully satisfied with civil unions," agreed Tamar Prager, a health-care consultant who grew up modern Orthodox in Englewood and had a commitment ceremony with her partner in ‘005. "I feel that although getting the rights and protections from the state is a huge deal, the word ‘marriage’ carries a lot of social status; [civil unions] fall short of really granting gays that social status, so that it falls into the camp of ‘separate but equal,’ [perhaps] equal as far as law is concerned, but the struggle isn’t over."

"We’re fighting for marriage, not as a moral right, but because only the word ‘marriage’ makes those rights [associated with marriage] come alive in the real world," said Goldstein.

Another source of anger and pain for Goldstein, who has completed his first year of rabbinical school at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College where gays and lesbians are ordained, is the intrusion of government on religious practice. "My partner and I, as Jews, and I, as a rabbinical student, are actually incensed that government has not caught up to our religion. Reconstructionist Judaism approves of marriage equality for same sex couples, and we believe it’s high time the state didn’t interfere with religious practice. How can the state tell a rabbi, ‘You cannot perform legal marriages?’" he asked, charging, "It’s a violation of church and state."

Taking the year off from his rabbinical studies to pursue activism, Goldstein referred those interested in joining the campaign for marriage equality to his organization’s Website, Since the group’s founding in ‘003, he noted, 153 state, local, and municipal laws promoting gay civil rights have been passed, making New Jersey the most pro-active gay-rights state in the nation. New Jersey’s Jewish community, which Goldstein said is the country’s second largest, has been "front and center" in the struggle, "supporting marriage equality two to one," according to a ‘006 Zogby poll he cited, although these statistics could not be corroborated.

Garden State Equality intends to maintain the pressure on public officials and plans a series of educational forums that will include stops at synagogues, said Goldstein. "Building the support of the Jewish electorate is vital to our fight to achieve marriage equality. It represents the best of tikkun olam, healing the world."

Given the momentum the group has generated, he predicted that the change would occur within two years, a timetable that Weinberg, with her long experience in legislative politics and insider’s knowledge of the legislative chamber, concurred is more or less accurate. Just two and a half years ago, New Jersey passed a restrictive domestic partnership law, she said. This time, with the legislature split 4 to 3 over what to call a union entitling the couple to all the rights and protections of marriage, Weinberg switched her minority position favoring marriage to vote with the majority in favor of the "civil union" label rather than risk defeat of the measure.

But she does not view this round as the last. "I understand the sensitivities of people who are against [calling it marriage], but I particularly understand the feelings of same-sex couples in a committed relationship who want the word ‘marriage’ applied to their relationship and [have it] more easily acknowledged in another state," she said.

Meanwhile, Prager and her partner, who invited family and friends to their commitment ceremony, performed by a Conservative rabbi in September ‘005, have no plans to declare their civil union in New Jersey. They are waiting for the day when New York, where they live, will sanction not just their legal ties, but their social status as well. Then, she and her partner can come home to New Jersey as a married couple.

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