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Latest New Jersey
civil unions bill refers to parties, not spouses

Latest New Jersey
civil unions bill refers to parties, not spouses

In inheritance, health insurance, parental rights, and virtually everything else but in name, gay couples in New Jersey would be treated the same as married couples under a bill introduced this week. The bill to authorize civil unions refers to couples not as spouses but as parties, language the head of the state's main gay rights group considers ''putrid.'' The legislation, filed late Monday and made available to the public Tuesday, is the response of key Democratic lawmakers to the state supreme court's ruling in October that New Jersey must extend all privileges of marriage to gay couples within 180 days. The court, in a 4-3 ruling, did not mandate that the unions be called marriages, and the political debate since then has focused squarely on that word. Steven Goldstein, executive director of Garden State Equality, an advocacy group that wants full marriage for gay couples, said he was surprised by the tone of the bill when he saw it Tuesday. ''Even by the standards of a civil unions bill, it's still putrid,'' he said. ''I've been with my partner more than 14 years. He's well beyond 'a party to a civil union.' '' The bill states that gay couples who register ''shall receive the same benefits and protections and be subject to the same responsibilities as spouses in a marriage.'' It does not, however, contain a provision like a similar 2000 Vermont law, which specifically said civil unions include ''any definition or use of the terms 'spouse,' 'family,' 'immediate family,' 'dependent,' 'next of kin.' '' Democratic state senator Loretta Weinberg, a sponsor of the New Jersey bill, said she would have called it ''spousal unions'' instead of ''civil unions'' if she thought her colleagues would support it. Three statewide polls taken by independent groups since the supreme court decision indicate New Jersey voters prefer civil unions to marriage, even if the difference comes down to a word. Linda Greenstein, chairwoman of the assembly judiciary committee, said that makes it risky for backers of the marriage bill to push too hard for a vote on it. ''They don't want to have it put up only to have it voted down,'' she said. Gov. Jon S. Corzine said Tuesday that he supports the civil unions legislation, though he would also sign a bill allowing gay couples to marry. But, he said, society isn't ready for same-sex marriage. A handful of states recognize same-sex couplings, though only Massachusetts allows marriage. Besides the bill introduced this week, New Jersey lawmakers are considering a bill that would allow gay couples to marry and a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. Social conservatives also have promised to introduce a bill granting rights similar to marriage to other people who live together. Most of the state's most powerful politicians, though, are backing civil unions. The bill would take effect 30 days after being signed into law, and Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts, a Democrat, has said he would like the civil unions bill to be passed before the end of the year. (Geoff Mulvihill, AP)

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