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New Jersey high court makes right call



Published: Sat, October 28, 2006 @ 12:00 a.m.



By ANDREA LEWIS

MCCLATCHY-TRIBUNE

Kudos to the New Jersey Supreme Court for ruling that same-sex couples deserve the same benefits as heterosexual couples.

"Denying committed same-sex couples the financial and social benefits and privileges given to their married heterosexual counterparts bears no substantial relationship to a legitimate government purpose," the court found.

But if you think discrimination against gay couples is a thing of the past, think again.

When former Rep. Gerry Studds, D-Mass., the first openly gay member of Congress, died Oct. 14 at age 69, his husband, Dean Hara, was informed that he would not be able to collect on Studds' pension (worth an annual $114,337) in spite of the couple's legally recognized marriage in Massachusetts in 2004. According to House pension administrators, a spouse is denied benefits only if the member and the spouse are the same sex, or if the spouse has been convicted of murdering the member.

Even the spouse of a convicted former member of Congress is eligible for a pension. But not gays or lesbians.

Pension benefits are just part of the problem.

Basic benefits

Gays and lesbians continue to be denied access to many of the basic benefits that others take for granted.

Members of same-sex couples are twice as likely to lack health insurance as people who are married, according to a new study by the Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy.

The study showed that 20 percent of people in same-sex couples are uninsured compared with just 10 percent for persons in married couples.

Most people under 65 access health care through their employer's plan or through the plan of a working spouse or family member. Without the option of marriage, however, many same-sex couples are left to negotiate the wasteland of a broken and outrageously expensive health care system on their own.

Fortunately, a growing number of Fortune 500 companies are now offering domestic partners benefits, such as health and life insurance, pensions and other programs, to their employees.

Sadly, however, a majority of employers, including the U.S. government, still fail to officially recognize the spouses of their gay workers.

The upside of providing health coverage to same-sex couples would be significant, according to Brad Sears, executive director of the Williams Institute.

"Offering domestic partnership benefits will bring about a decline in the number of uninsured people, reduced social costs and a substantial increase in Americans' health and well-being," Sears says.

There are almost 9 million lesbian, gay and bisexual people in the United States, according to the Current Population Survey estimates. This is a huge group to treat as second-class citizens.

In New Jersey, at least, gays are one step closer to equality.

Andrea Lewis is co-host of "The Morning Show" on KPFA Radio in Berkeley, Calif. The writer wrote this for Progressive Media Project, a source of liberal commentary on domestic and international issues; it is affiliated with The Progressive magazine. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services




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