Delivery service cites civil union law as not enough to merit recognition
by Jackie Yodashkin
TRENTON, N.J. — A recently released letter from UPS draws a startling distinction between civil unions and marriage in its denial of spousal benefits for employees joined in civil unions in the state of New Jersey.
“This letter shows that when the New Jersey Legislature said same-sex couples are unworthy of marriage, it sent an invitation to everybody to discriminate, and UPS accepted the invitation,” said David Buckel, Marriage Project Director of Lambda Legal. “Choosing to discriminate is wrong, but choices like that are inevitable when the state government sets discrimination as the standard.”
In a letter outlining why it was denying spousal benefits to Lambda Legal clients and UPS employee Nickie Brazier and her partner Heather Aurand, UPS said, “In summary, you cannot add Ms. Aurand as a spouse because New Jersey law does not treat civil unions the same as marriages,[emphasis added] and the plan requires a dependent spouse to be a spouse as defined under applicable state law.”
Gabriael “Nickie” Brazier, is a driver for UPS who requested to have her civil union spouse, Heather Aurand, added to UPS’s benefit plan so that the couple would not have to continue paying for a second health insurance plan for Heather and could stop paying down a second yearly deductible. Aurand is a stay-at-home parent who is raising the couple’s three children. The couple has been together for over seven years.
Tom Walton is also a UPS driver who asked to have his civil union spouse and partner of 15 years, Mearmon Davis, added to his health care plan and was denied.
In its October 2006 decision in Lambda Legal’s marriage equality lawsuit, Lewis v. Harris, the New Jersey Supreme Court unanimously found that same-sex couples in New Jersey must have equal protection under the law and be granted the rights and responsibilities of marriage, but gave the legislature the opportunity to correct the violation. If the legislature chose civil unions over marriage equality, the Court left open the question of whether or not that choice would be constitutional, reasoning that the legislature should have the chance to explain its decision. A marriage equality bill was introduced on Nov. 20, and never reached a committee hearing, but a civil union bill was subsequently passed December 2006 and became effective in February 2007.
Lambda Legal estimates that it has responded to calls for help from over 100 same-sex couples who have registered for civil unions and have been denied benefits that they would have received had they been able to marry. With alarm over the mounting problems confronted by same-sex couples joined in civil unions, Assembly Speaker Roberts recently dispatched letters of concern, including one stating: “I respectfully request that the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce — as one of the state’s leading business advocacy organizations — strongly urge its members to comply with the spirit and intent of the law so that same-sex couples will not be denied the protections guaranteed by the New Jersey State Constitution.”