Out NJ official steps down

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The openly gay director of the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights resigned his post this week.

Frank Vespa-Papaleo, who’s been at the helm of the agency for six-and-a-half years, stepped down effective Dec. 31 to pursue new career challenges.

Vespa-Papaleo’s replacement, who has not yet been named, must be nominated by Gov. Jon Corzine and approved by the New Jersey Civil Rights Commission.

Vespa-Papaleo was the agency’s longest-serving director and, under his leadership, the DCR, which enforces the state’s Law Against Discrimination, made numerous strides to protect and enhance the rights of LGBT residents as well as other minority groups.

“I’m very proud of what we’ve done to ensure that the full promises of the antidiscrimination law were met for all people,” he said. “We reinvigorated the agency’s use of the LAD with regard to protecting traditionally underrepresented minority groups, such as people with disabilities, immigrants, people with religious minority groups and women. We used the law to its fullest extent to protect all different types of communities. In my view, the greatest strength of the civil-rights law is that it doesn’t protect just one minority but many.”

Vespa-Papaleo noted that one of the cases he worked on regarded a youth who was being bullied in school because of his sexual orientation, and he said the DCR’s ruling in that case had the potential for far-reaching consequences both in New Jersey and across the country.

“One of the things I’m most proud of that I think had a longstanding impact was the decision that I made, which ultimately was affirmed by the New Jersey Supreme Court, that holds school districts liable for allowing harassment of students on the basis of their sexual orientation. This was the first case of its kind in the nation where a student was protected by unlawful bullying using our state’s antidiscrimination law.”

Vespa-Papaleo also ruled on numerous other LGBT discrimination issues, such as a recent decision that found substantial evidence that a religious organization discriminated against a lesbian couple. In addition he served as the chair of the Civil Union Review Commission, which last month recommended that the state permit same-sex marriage.

He expressed confidence that his successor would continue to work on behalf of all minorities, including the LGBT community.

“I think that what’s important is that the agency continue to move forward in ensuring protections of all groups and minorities, and I have no doubt that anyone who’s a seasoned professional in the area of civil rights and discrimination law will be able to do that,” he said. “One does not have to be a member of a particular group in order to ensure that that’s something they’ll focus on; whether this person is straight, gay or transgender, the agency will remain very, very strong and vigilant in protection of all New Jerseyans.”

He said he’s now looking forward to building upon and expanding on the work he did with the DCR to create new opportunities for himself.

“It’s a fantastic agency. We’ve done some really great work here, but there comes a time when you want a new challenge,” he said. “I intend to do something where I can continue to challenge myself and push myself to be a better lawyer and a better member of the community.”

Jen Colletta can be reached at [email protected].