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Couples Praise N.J. Law, but Still Think More Can Be Done
Back in 1994, the two women had a religious commitment ceremony-- a wedding, they insist -- conducted by a rabbi. Then, 10 years later, they signed up as domestic partners when New Jersey passed a law that offered limited rights and protections to same sex couples.
Then in 2005, the couple had a civil marriage ceremony -- conducted in Flemish -- while spending the year in Belgium, which legalized same sex marriages in 2003. Their now 8-year-old daughter Sadie witnessed that event.
The members of Kehilat HaNahar: The Little Shul by the River in New Hope are planning to have the congregation's leader, Rabbi Sandy Roth, and the Lambertville Mayor David DelVeccio conduct a joint civil union and religious recommitment ceremony. They just haven't set a date yet.
"Obviously for us, that day when we stood under the chupah was the real one and the one that matters most to us," said 46-year-old Anita Lerman.
"I'm an extremely proud New Jerseyan. It took a lot to get this to happen and the state is trying to address civil rights and equality," Lerman continued. "But it's also really frustrating. It's not really marriage. Why is it legal to discriminate against us?"
Back in October, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that the state constitution guarantees gay couples the rights and protections of marriage. Then in December, Governor Jon Corzine signed the civil union bill into law. It extends to same sex couples broad rights that cover such matters as property and inheritance, hospital visitation and decision-making, and a host of other issues.
Many who spoke about the passage of the civil union law felt much like Lerman -- that New Jersey now affords gay couples more rights than any state except Massachusetts (the only state to allow same sex marriage) but that civil unions aren't enough, that they fall far short of marriage.
According to Steven Goldstein, chair of Garden State Equality, a political organization that is pushing for gay marriage, 4,000 couples statewide have registered for domestic partner benefits, and similar numbers could apply for civil union licenses. Goldstein said that the state has not released statistics on how many civil unions there have been thus far, but he estimated that the number is around 100.
Unlike similar civil union laws passed in Vermont and Connecticut, the New Jersey law doesn't explicitly define marriage as being between a man and a woman, and so leaves the door open for further change, according to Goldstein.
"This is a historic time. New Jersey is in the midst of one of the great civil rights struggles of our time," said the 44-year-old Goldstein, an aspiring rabbi who put his studies at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College on hold in order to devote himself fully to the civil-union-and-marriage issue.
"Our goal is to achieve marriage equality through legislation," said Goldstein, a Teaneck, N.J., resident who said he plans to return to the RRC part-time while continuing his advocacy work.
"Jews should view marriage equality as an issue central to tikkun olam," said Goldstein, who is hopeful that the New Jersey legislature will pass a marriage law by the end of 2008.
Unlike the Lermans, Goldstein and partner Daniel Gross weren't much for waiting. They had a civil ceremony at exactly 12:01 a.m. on Feb. 19. Back in 2002, the couple had a religious wedding ceremony in Montreal and a civil ceremony in Vermont; they also became the first same sex couple whose union was profiled in The New York Times Sunday "Styles" section.
"There is no question that the Jewish wedding we had was infinitely more meaningful to us," he said. "This was a bittersweet moment. It's a move toward equality, but on the other hand it's not equality. It's a separate status."
Goldstein and Gross won't be married in the eyes of the federal government. They won't be able to file joint federal income taxes. And Goldstein said that just because New Jersey has passed a law, it's possible that hospitals and insurance companies may not comply so easily.
But while there is some ambivalence about the new law, it doesn't appear that many same sex couples are skipping the civil union ceremony as a form of protest.
"You can't be foolish. The law now affords us with rights and privileges that we need to secure," said 39-year-old Lee Rosenfield, who met his partner, Jack Fastag, 11 years ago at Congregation Beth Ahavah, the region's only gay and lesbian synagogue that is now housed at Congregation Rodeph Shalom.
They had a civil ceremony Feb. 25 at their West Amwell, N.J., home, the same spot were they had a religious ceremony back in 2004. Now, legal ties are going to matter more than ever; with the help of a surrogate mother, the couple is expecting their first child.
"We try to live our lives by example. That's why we're out as individuals and as a couple ... to show that gay people are normal," said Rosenfield.
"We are not asking for special treatment. We are asking for equal rights."