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New Jersey
governor makes civil unions official

New Jersey
governor makes civil unions official

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New Jersey's governor signed legislation on Thursday giving gay couples all the rights and responsibilities of marriage allowed under state law--but not the title.

New Jersey's governor signed legislation Thursday giving gay couples all the rights and responsibilities of marriage allowed under state law--but not the title. When the law goes into effect February 19, New Jersey will become the third state offering civil unions to gay couples and the fifth allowing gay couples some version of marriage.

Connecticut and Vermont also offer civil unions for gay couples, while Massachusetts allows gay couples to marry, and California has domestic partnerships that bring full marriage rights under state law. Hawaii and Maine also offer some form of legal recognition to gay couples.

''We must recognize that many gay and lesbian couples in New Jersey are in committed relationships and deserve the same benefits and rights as every other family in this state,'' Gov. Jon S. Corzine said in signing the legislation.

The legislature passed the civil unions bill on December 14 in response to a state supreme court order that gay couples be granted the same rights as married couples. The court in October gave lawmakers six months to act but left it to them to decide whether to call the unions ''marriage'' or something else.

Gay couples welcomed the civil unions law, but some argued that not calling the relationship marriage created a different, inferior institution. The civil unions law grants gay couples adoption, inheritance, hospital visitation, and medical decision-making rights as well as the right not to testify against a partner in state court.

They won't, however, be entitled to the same benefits as married couples in the eyes of the federal government because of the 1996 federal law that defines marriage as between a man and a woman. Gay partners won't be able to collect deceased partners' Social Security benefits, for example, said family lawyer Felice T. Londa, who represents many same-sex couples.

Donna Harrison of Asbury Park, who has been with her partner, Kathy Ragauckas, for nine years, isn't exactly celebrating the bill-signing, though she said she and Ragauckas will probably get a civil union certificate. ''Although I think they provide some benefit, it is a different treatment of human beings,'' she said.

The gay rights group Garden State Equality has promised to push lawmakers to change the terminology to marriage. Others are considering lawsuits to force full recognition of same-sex marriage. The New Jersey bill creates a commission that will regularly review the law and recommend possible changes.

Corzine, a Democrat, said that creating a commission seems a reasonable approach, but he said calling the arrangement a civil union rather than marriage is preferable. ''For most people marriage has a religious connotation, and for many there is a view that that term is not consistent with the teachings of their religious belief,'' the governor said. ''So there is not democratic support in the broader society for that label, even though there is strong support for equal protection under the law.''

Social conservative groups and lawmakers opposed the measure, reasoning that it brings gay relationships too close to marriage, but it easily passed the legislature. Some have vowed to push to amend the state constitution to ban same-sex marriage, but Democrats who control the legislature said such proposals won't be heard.

The three-day waiting period required by the law is the same as with marriage licenses. Licenses will be valid for 30 days, and ceremonies can be officiated by anyone who performs weddings, including clergy and mayors. As with marriages, civil unions will have to be witnessed by one additional adult. (AP)

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