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)