Gay couples in New Jersey can form civil unions, but can't get married. This month, the state legislature debated, but didn't vote on, full marriage equality for same sex couples.

Because couples in that state can already form civil unions with the full rights of married couples, some wonder what letting them get married would even do.

The answer is that, when it comes to benefits, employers treat couples called “marriages” differently than couples called “civil unions. Steven Goldstein, CEO of New Jersey gay rights organization Garden State Equality, explained:

About half of all employers in New Jersey are self-insured and therefore fall out of the purview of state law, including the state’s civil union law. No state may penalize companies that comply with federal laws.

As a result, many self-insured employers in the state don't provide benefits to same sex partners of employees. But if New Jersey legalized gay marriage, employers would be more likely to provide these benefits. Steven talked about what happened it Massachussets, as an example:

In Massachusetts . . . the overwhelming majority of employers have chosen not to invoke the federal loophole. Employers there understand and respect the power of the word “marriage.” Without the term “civil union” to hide behind, Massachusetts employers are loathe to discriminate against their gay employees. They would have to admit the reason for their discrimination.

This difference in insurance benefits is not the only way that civil unions are different than marriages in terms of rights. I've talked before about other problems, especially regarding out-of-state recognition difficulties.

[Cross-posted at the Gay Couples Law Blog, which discusses same sex family law, estate planning, and taxes.]

Gideon Alper

Gideon Alper


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