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N.J. lawmakers OK civil unions, not same-sex marriage

Story Highlights

• New Jersey governor has said he would sign a civil unions bill into law
• Gay rights activists call ruling mixed blessing, still want marriage rights
• New Jersey would be fourth state to give rights to same-sex couples
• Same-sex couples do not receive marriage benefits from federal government
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NEW YORK (CNN) -- Facing pressure from the state's top court, the New Jersey Legislature voted Thursday to give gay and lesbian couples the rights and privileges of marriage, while using the term "civil unions" to describe the partnerships.

The vote in the General Assembly was 56-19. The Senate vote was 23-12. Gov. Jon S. Corzine has said he would sign a civil unions bill into law.

Steven Goldstein, director of Equality New Jersey, told Bloomberg that the vote was a mixed blessing for the state's gays and lesbians because there was no guarantee non-government entities would honor the decision.

"Nobody knows what civil unions are in the real world. That's the problem,'' Goldstein told Bloomberg. "We want marriage equality, not a law that discriminates.''

The move follows an order by the New Jersey Supreme Court, which directed the state to provide same-sex couples with marriage rights or their equivalent.

Employing civil rights terminology, gay and lesbian advocates blasted the decision and said that providing the benefits of marriage without calling it marriage was tantamount to the "separate but equal" treatment of a discriminated group.

Conservatives have steadfastly opposed legislation that suggests same-sex relationships are equivalent to marriages between men and women.

If Corzine, a Democrat, signs the measure into law, New Jersey will become the third state behind Vermont and Connecticut to OK civil unions. Massachusetts also recognizes rights for same-sex couples, and is the only state to use the term marriage.

The federal government recognizes neither same-sex marriage nor civil union, meaning same-sex couples do not receive federal marriage benefits such as Social Security.

According to the New Jersey bill, two people who enter into a civil union "shall have all of the same benefits, protections and responsibilities under law, whether they derive from statute, administrative or court rule, public policy, common law or any other source of civil law, as are granted to spouses in a marriage."

Adoption and hospital visitation are covered under that definition.

In October, the state Supreme Court ruled 4-3 that New Jersey could not discriminate against same-sex couples by excluding them from the benefits of marriage. It gave the state 180 days to rectify the situation through legislative action.

"By passing a law that marks same-sex couples as inferior, the government has paved the way for others to discriminate against them," said David Buckel, marriage project director at Lambda Legal and lead attorney on the Lewis v. Harris marriage lawsuit that led to the court's decision.

New Jersey Gov. Jon S. Corzine has said he would sign a civil unions bill into law.



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