N.J. Clergy Not Required to Do Unions

The Associated Press
Friday, January 12, 2007; 11:21 AM

MOUNT LAUREL, N.J. -- Clergy in New Jersey cannot be required to unite gay couples in civil unions, the state attorney general said in a decision that quieted the fears of some religious groups opposed to same-sex ceremonies.

Attorney General Stuart Rabner's legal opinion, sent Thursday to the state registrar of vital statistics, came less than a month after the state became the third to approve civil unions for gay couples.

The unions offer the legal benefits of marriage, but not the title. Couples may begin applying for licenses in New Jersey Feb. 19 and can be united 72 hours later.

Under the law, all the same people who perform marriages _ among them clergy, judges, mayors and other local officials _ can preside over civil union ceremonies.

Some opponents worried that gay rights might sue to force clergy to perform the ceremonies.

Patrick R. Brannigan, executive director of the New Jersey Catholic Conference, which lobbies on behalf of the state's Roman Catholic dioceses, said Thursday he had feared Catholic clergy could also be accused of hate crimes when they denied requests to perform civil union ceremonies.

Rabner's opinion puts that to rest, he said. "It recognizes our right to practice our faith," Brannigan said.

Gay rights advocates said the opinion came as no surprise.

"It's always been true that religious groups can say no to any couple that wants to get married," said David S. Buckel, the marriage project director for Lambda Legal.

Rabner said religious rites performed by clergy are exempt from New Jersey's law against discrimination so, unlike municipal officials, they cannot be compelled to perform civil unions.

The attorney general had issued another opinion last month saying mayors and other non-clergy who regularly perform marriages cannot turn down gay couples who ask to have civil unions performed.

Those officials, he said, will have to perform the unions or stop doing all weddings. To perform any marriage requested but then turn down civil unions would be a violation of the anti-discrimination law, he said.

Only Massachusetts has legalized gay marriage. Vermont and Connecticut already allow civil unions, and Washington state's five openly gay lawmakers called for gay marriage rights Thursday, saying they would pursue that goal while seeking enhanced domestic partnership rights.

© 2007 The Associated Press