Garden State Lawmakers Pass Civil Unions Bill

December 15, 2006 ( - The Garden State is set to become the third state in the nation to offer civil unions, with New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine promising to sign legislation approved Thursday by the state legislature.

Lawmakers’ action came as part of a mandate from the state’s highest court to craft a legal structure offering same-sex couples the same rights as heterosexual couples. The proposal passed the Assembly 56-19 and the Senate 23-12, the Washington Post reported.

As did the court, the legislature stopped short of using the term “marriage” to describe the civil unions. Civil unions extend to gays and lesbians all the rights state law affords married people, but gives them a status separate from heterosexuals.

The 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 three-year commission to examine whether the state should establish full same-sex marriage rights.

During the Senate debate, bill sponsor Senator Loretta Weinberg suggested the legislature still might change the name “civil union” to marriage.

“This is the art of the possible,” she said, according to the Post report. “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 passed a domestic-partnership law in 2004, offering only limited legal rights (See  McGreevey Pens Garden State Same-Sex Partner Bill  ). Same-sex couples still lacked about 100 legal rights married couples have, advocates said, from the ability to be at the hospital bed of an ill partner, to certain inheritance rights, to laws governing taxes and adoption.

Seven same-sex couples sued the state, and in October New Jersey’s Supreme Court ruled 4-3 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 (See NJ Supreme Court Grants Full Rights to Same-Sex Couples ).

Only Massachusetts has legalized marriage for same-sex couples, with the Legislature there also acting under pressure from the state’s highest court (See  Massachusetts Court Says Gays Entitled to Marry ). Vermont (See  Vermont Lawmakers Attempt to Extend Civil Union Definition ) and Connecticut (See   CT Civil Union Bill Could Affect Employer State Tax Computations ) also offer civil unions.