When the South Orange clerk's office opens at 12:01 a.m. Saturday to register couples under the state's new domestic partner law (search), Marty Finkle and Mike Plake plan to be first in line.
The law, signed by Gov. James E. McGreevey (search) in January, allows gay partners to make medical decisions for each other and file joint state tax returns. It does not, however, legalize gay marriage (search) and offers far fewer rights than those given to heterosexual married couples.
"This is the next step on our way to full recognition of marriage rights," said Finkle, who helped fight for the legislation.
New Jersey is the fifth state in the nation to officially recognize same-sex couples. Domestic partner benefits have been granted in California and Hawaii. Vermont has approved civil unions and Massachusetts recently legalized same-sex marriage.
While most towns won't start signing up couples for the benefits until Monday, some municipalities with large gay populations, such as South Orange and Maplewood, will open offices this weekend.
"We know it's an important event and something crucial in the history of the country and we wanted to add our blessings to it," said South Orange Mayor William Calabrese.
The Rev. Bob Kriesat and Edward Mather plan to drive to Maplewood from their Morris Township home on Saturday morning to register. The two men have been in a relationship for 35 years and see the law, which also covers unmarried heterosexual couples over age 62, as an important milestone.
"While we recognize this is not a marriage and does not come near to providing the protections of marriage, it's a step," said Kriest, a pastor at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in Chatham.
In Maplewood, a ceremony marking the new law will be at 10 a.m. Saturday outside the town hall. The clerk's offices will be open afterward to begin registering couples.
Maplewood also is planning a daylong celebration at Memorial Park with live music, food vendors and an unofficial group registration ceremony.
Catholic and conservative groups have raised objections to the law, but so far no lawsuits have been filed to block it, said Patrick DeAlmeida, a deputy state attorney general.
The forms and certificates are similar to those used for marriage licenses. But, unlike a marriage license, New Jersey residents can apply for a partnership in any municipality, not just the town in which the couple live.
To sign up, couples need government-issued identification and proof of shared financial assets. There is no waiting period.