By Robin Shulman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 15, 2006
NEW YORK, Dec. 14 -- With a mandate from New Jersey's highest court to offer gay couples the same rights as heterosexuals, the state legislature voted Thursday to create civil unions but stopped short of using the word "marriage."
Gov. Jon S. Corzine (D) has said he will sign the bill into law, making New Jersey the third state, after Vermont and Connecticut, to offer civil unions, which extend to gay men and lesbians all the rights state law affords married people but give them a separate status.
Corzine, who does not support same-sex marriage, will review the details "sooner rather than later," a spokesman said.
The proposal passed the state Assembly 56 to 19 and the Senate 23 to 12. During the Senate debate, Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D), the prime sponsor of the bill, suggested that the legislature might in the future change the term "civil union" to "marriage."
"This is the art of the possible," she said. "The possible is to guarantee to the couples that I know, people who have been together longer than the average marriage lasts in the state of New Jersey . . . all the same legal rights that I enjoyed in my almost 40 years of marriage."
New Jersey lawmakers have danced warily around the question of same-sex marriage in recent years. The legislature passed a domestic-partnership law in 2004, according limited legal rights.
Gay couples still lack about 100 legal rights possessed by married straight couples, advocates say, including the ability to be at the hospital bed of an ill partner, certain inheritance rights, and rights related to taxes and adoption. Seven gay couples sued the state, and in October its Supreme Court ruled 4 to 3 that "the unequal dispensation of rights and benefits to committed same-sex partners can no longer be tolerated under our state constitution." The court gave the legislature 180 days to craft a fix.
Thursday's measure would write civil unions into all sections of the state's marriage laws, including those governing divorce, prenuptial agreements, custody, inheritance, and power of attorney in financial and medical matters. It also would create a commission to examine whether the state should establish full same-sex marriage rights. Only Massachusetts has legalized marriage for gay couples.
The League of American Families has opposed New Jersey's bill, saying marriage should be between a man and a woman. Last week, the group proposed an initiative that would give special rights to people who care for family members or live in the same home, regardless of their sexual relationships.
Gay advocates also expressed dissatisfaction with the legislation. "There are huge mixed emotions," said Steven Goldstein, director of Garden State Equality. "The law didn't go far enough and was not marriage equality." But he said he is optimistic about same-sex marriage rights in coming years, as cultural mores shift.
Marcye Nicholson-McFadden, one of the original plaintiffs in the court case, was at home in suburban Aberdeen, N.J., listening to news of the legislature's decision on the radio. "My reaction, frankly, is disappointment," said Nicholson-McFadden, who has two children with her partner. "It's creating a completely separate class of people that will not be eligible for marriage but for marriage-lite or marriage-less or whatever you want to call it.
"It especially sends that message to our kids: If you're gay and you want to marry the person you love, New Jersey says you're not quite good enough for that."