This piece, by ACLU-NJ Legal Director Ed Barocas, originally appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Promoted by Rosi Efthim, who in full disclosure should say she is proud that a member of her family is an ACLU-NJ board member. But that’s not why we’re posting this, we’re doing that because Ed Barocas is right.
N.J. statute discriminates against couples, families.
In New Jersey’s debate over marriage, legislators have suggested making businesses pay for discrimination that lawmakers themselves created with the 2006 civil union law. It seems that the legislature believes discrimination is only a problem when someone else practices it.
During last month’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on marriage equality, family after family testified about discrimination they experienced, ranging from bank tellers to hospital staff, who failed to recognize their civil unions.
But rather than enact the obvious remedy – legalizing gay marriage – five Republican state senators suggested flaws could be corrected by levying “strong penalties” against businesses that fail to recognize the rights of civil union couples and their families. But neither fines nor revisions will fix the discrimination written into this law.
Legislators fashioned a segregated system of rights for one group of citizens in 2006, hoping that somehow separate would be equal. But as history shows us, separate is never equal. Many New Jerseyans have no idea what civil unions are and therefore simply fail to recognize the rights they carry.
If the legislature were to massage the civil union law rather than reform it, businesses could face fines, as well as vast, untold costs to train employees and alter data systems (most business forms recognize people only as “married” or “single”). And taxpayers would foot the multimillion-dollar bill to educate businesses and the public about a law that still would be inherently discriminatory.
Laws don’t exist in a vacuum, and the titles we give to our rights affect how those rights are treated in our state, in the country and around the globe. And children of civil union couples suffer most of all.
The most compelling testimony during the Senate hearing came from a student who had been mercilessly bullied at school and from other children who felt like outsiders when they couldn’t make their classmates understand their parents’ nonmarital status. How can kids on the playground be expected to understand civil unions when businesses and hospital personnel don’t get it?
Justice Louis Brandeis said, “Our government is the potent, the omnipotent teacher. For good or for ill, it teaches the whole people by its example.”
What is the legislature teaching by segregating one group from all others? That it’s acceptable to have two classes of people with two sets of rights. When the state itself segregates people, it grants the rest of society permission to do the same. Through its example, the legislature excuses bigotry and emboldens bullies.
Senators, the time has come to right this wrong rather than heap the blame and cost of your own discriminatory decision upon others.
Ed Barocas (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey.