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Friday, December 15, 2006

New Jersey is 3rd state to allow gay civil unions
The Legislature moves swiftly after it was ordered to allow
same-sex marriages or create an equivalent.

By Ellen Barry, LATimes Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Ordered by the state Supreme Court to allow gay marriage or create a legal equivalent, New Jersey's lawmakers on Thursday chose to allow civil unions, making New Jersey the third state to do so.

Vermont and Connecticut allow civil unions, which include all the legal rights of marriage. Massachusetts is the only state that allows gay couples to marry.

Seven weeks ago, New Jersey's Supreme Court ruled by a 4-3 margin that gay couples are constitutionally guaranteed the benefits of marriage. But the majority ruling left it to legislators to resolve the thorny question of whether to call their unions "marriage," reasoning that "the great engine for social change in this country has always been the democratic process."

The ruling gave legislators six months to resolve the matter.

New Jersey's elected officials — among them Democratic Gov. Jon S. Corzine — made it clear immediately that they preferred civil unions.

The bill was hurried through the process in 10 days, giving marriage advocates little ability to argue their case, said Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund attorney David Buckel, who represented seven couples who sued the state for the right to marry.

"The irony is that the court referred this matter to the Legislature because it did not want to short-circuit the democratic process," he said. "The Legislature is doing just that."

Others saw Thursday's vote as a victory for gay rights. By guaranteeing same-sex couples rights equivalent to marriage, lawmakers "have told the world that marriage no longer matters," said Robert Knight of the Media Research Center, who opposes gay marriage. "This is a social wrecking ball."

Steven Goldstein, chairman of Garden State Equality, said he was "jubilant for the future," because so many elected officials had committed to press for marriage rights later. A marriage equality law would expand the legal definition of marriage to include same-sex couples.

"Mark my words, New Jersey will see the marriage equality law passed by this Legislature within the next year or two," he said.

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