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Friday, January 20, 2006

Hero or Martyr: A Choice for Ocean County Freeholders

Most of us that work participate in some type of benefits program. Generally, that includes retirement benefits, health insurance, life insurance, and the like. But, whose benefits are they? Yours? Or the organization for which you work?

How about the American dream? To whom does it belong? Does the process of working hard to get ahead, enjoying the benefits of your efforts, and leaving your loved ones a bit better off, emotionally and financially, when you die belong to only one group of people? Does the government have the right or the power to cut some groups of people off from that dream?

For Lt. Laurel Hester, it isn't a theoretical question. Ms. Hester has spent her life in what can only be described as public service (you can read about that service here, here, and here). In a state rife with false prophets of public trust, not one person can be found that could level any hint of a charge against Ms. Hester that she did not fully uphold the faith entrusted in her by the public. To be blunt, Ms. Hester is a role-model and a hero. For every little girl who wants to fight for justice and to proudly serve society, she is an example of how to quietly overcome structural and social prejudice and become successful simply on the merits of the work you do.

At least, she should be. Unfortunately, a small group of men stand between Lt. Hester and fulfilling her American dream - even as that dream ends in a nightmare of suffering and pain. The Ocean County Board of Freeholders (New Jersey) has determined that Ms. Hester cannot pass on her survivor's benefits to the only person in her life that has a legitimate claim to that role in her life. Because the great love of Ms. Hester's life is a woman, she has been informed that the benefits for which she worked and set aside a portion of her wages will be confiscated from her and denied to her family. It's a travesty of justice that has legislators in Trenton whispering among themselves.

The false reasoning behind the decision of the Freeholders is that it would cost too much money to fulfill Lt. Hester's wishes. Nearby Camden County, however, shows the lie of such a statement. Having been exposed as having no real basis to stand upon, they have retreated to obfuscation and denial. (You can read an update of the news converage here.) Time is obviously on the side of the Freeholders. Once Ms. Hester loses her battle with cancer, no one will have the legal standing to file a claim in court. They will win by forcing a true and faithful public servant to become a martyr.

Any common sense of justice demands fair treatment. A dying person, who holds legitimate survivor benefits, should be able to assign them to whomever they determine to be the proper recipient. For the government, at any level, to step in and say this isn't so is governmental abuse and intrusion of the meanest sort. It is arbitrary and capricious and morally wrong.

I know that there are some who will rely on the Biblical condemnation of homosexuality as justification for the Freeholders actions. As a Christian, I can understand the concept of naming homosexuality as sin - and that is a personal matter of faith that should have no bearing on the legality of survivor benefits. After all, no public servant in New Jersey has EVER been denied benefits because of sin - in fact, several of them sitting in prison right now for official misconduct are still receiving full or abbreviated benefits. To add insult to injury, these criminals can designate that public funds go to support their designated family members when they die. Sin cannot be a grounds for opposing Lt. Hester's suvivor benefits.

There are two solutions to the problem. If Ms. Hester were not in love with another woman; then she could marry on her deathbed and her benefits would automatically accrue to her spouse. If Lt. Hester were a man leaving behind a grieving woman with whom she had spent years of her life, then the Freeholders would not hesitate to make an exception or change the laws. In short, this is simply a case where a woman has been reduced to second-class citizenship - a class where her property can be usurped, her rights denied, and dreams ignored. If our Constitution allows this to occur to Laurel Hester today; then there is nothing to say it cannot happen to everyone tomorrow.

Lt. Hester has lived a life of a good and faithful public servant. Ms. Hester has lived a life of quiet dignity and honorable patience to gain her full rights of citizenship. At the moment of her death, she will either be rightfully honored for this life or she will be shamefully martyred for it. No one deserves to be a martyr (that is, after all, part of the definition of the word). The Ocean County Freeholders should act immediately to ensure that the outcome of this case is the former rather than the latter. Laurel Hester has earned it. She deserves better treatment from her employers.

It's the right thing to do.

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