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JIC Post: BY DEBORAH HOWLETTStar-Ledger When lung cancer finally kills Laurel Hester -- and it will, in a matter of months -- she wants to know that her domestic partner, Stacie Andree, won't lose their home in Point Pleasant.That legacy, however, is in doubt.Ocean County's freeholders have refused to act on a request from Hester, an investigator for 23 years in the county prosecutor's office, to provide domestic partner benefits for gay and lesbian employees under a state law enacted last year. Without a resolution by the freeholders, her pension benefits cannot go to Andree. "That's not what I hoped for with the legislation," said Sen. John Adler (D-Camden), a prime sponsor. "It's a missed opportunity for Ocean County to show that it respects families. ... It's a crummy, cold decision."The surviving spouse benefit amounts to about $13,000 a year and would be paid from the state pension fund. For Andree, an auto mechanic, the money would "mean the difference in whether or not she can stay in the house," Hester said.When the Legislature passed the Domestic Partners Act of 2004, it covered all state employees. The act also changed state law to permit -- but not require -- counties, cities and other local government entities to provide pension and health care benefits for domestic partners of their employees.More than 100 agencies have since adopted such resolutions, including Bergen and Hudson counties, NJ Transit, the New Jersey Turnpike Authority and a dozen towns, from Stone Harbor to Jersey City.Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) said not requiring local governments to adopt domestic partner benefits was "the only way to get the bill through.""We were well aware of the difficulties; that it was only a small step forward," she said. "It is something that we will have to come back and address in future legislative sessions."For now, it has created a patchwork of law applied inequitably to public employees depending on local politics, according to Steven Goldstein of Garden State Equality, a gay rights organization. "I can't express enough outrage about what's happening (in Ocean County). It makes me nauseous," Goldstein said. "We're seeing a real failure of the law. ... It represents why we are fighting for marriage."A lawsuit asking the state to legally recognize same-sex marriage is before the state Supreme Court. Arguments are expected to be heard early next year.Ocean County's freeholders have said that adopting domestic partnership benefits is cost prohibitive, although administrator Alan Avery said the county has not formally studied the issue and doesn't have actual cost figures. At least one freeholder, John P. Kelly, the law and public safety chairman, has cited moral reservations, telling the Asbury Park Press it violates "the sanctity of marriage."Kelly declined to speak to The Star-Ledger, as did Freeholder Director Joseph Vicari.John Tomicki of the League of American Families, a state group that opposes domestic partner benefits, said the freeholders were doing exactly what state lawmakers intended when they passed the legislation."We understand the emotion of this, but the legal issue is very clear," Tomicki said. "It's their (the freeholders') decision, which is what the law allows. They're obviously reflecting the values of their community."The battle began a year ago, when Hester, 49, was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. Ironically, it was the same afternoon that she and Andree, who have been together for six years, registered as domestic partners.Hester went to her supervisors and requested spousal pension benefits for Andree. It was the first time she officially disclosed her sexual orientation, although she said her relationship with Andree was an open secret in the office.Hester and Andree bought the small ranch house in Point Pleasant in 2002 and Andree has done considerable work fixing it up. They have two dogs and share finances. Andree is the beneficiary of Hester's life insurance policy.Hester's supervisors tried to win approval of pension benefits through back channels, without success.In June, Kevin Schaal, the president of Policeman's Benevolent Association Local 171, sent a formal letter to the freeholders, asking them to take action. The freeholders have yet to respond formally.With nearly two dozen colleagues from the prosecutor's office there for support, Hester went to the board's regular meeting last month and publicly appealed to the five freeholders, all Republicans.The freeholders took the matter under advisement. At their meeting last week, the freeholders said they had discussed the matter in executive session and chose not to act.No formal vote was taken, Avery said, because it was unnecessary. "The only vote that can occur is an affirmative vote," he said, "and there's no support for it to pass."
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