TRENTON, New Jersey – The governor is expected to sign a bill legalizing civil unions and making New Jersey one of the five U.S. states with the most benefits and protections for gay couples.
Governor Jon S. Corzine said Thursday that he would review the bill for any possible unintended consequences before signing it. He did not indicate how long the review might take.
Earlier Thursday both houses of the eastern state's Legislature approved the bill, which came in response to a state Supreme Court order that gay couples be granted the same rights as married couples.
In the October ruling, the court gave lawmakers six months to act and left it to them to decide whether to call the gay unions "marriage" or something else.
The measure passed easily, 56-19 in the Assembly and 23-12 in the Senate.
In the United States, only Massachusetts allows gay couples to marry. Vermont and Connecticut have civil unions, and California offers domestic partnerships that have all the rights and responsibilities of marriage. Since 2004, New Jersey has had a more limited version of domestic partnerships.
Among the benefits to be conferred on gay couples under New Jersey's civil unions bill are adoption rights, hospital visitation rights and inheritance rights. Officials could begin granting civil unions 60 days after the governor signs the legislation.
Social conservative groups opposed the measure, reasoning that it brings gay relationships too close in standing to marriage. Some are vowing to push to amend the state constitution to ban gay marriage.
Gay rights groups had mixed feelings about the legislation. They have argued that not calling the unions "marriage" creates a different, inferior institution. But they welcomed Thursday's legislation as a step toward gaining the right to marry.
Some lawmakers also considered Thursday's action to be an interim step on the way to full marriage rights.
"This should be called what it is — 'marriage,"' said Democratic Senator Loretta Weinberg, a sponsor of the bill. She said the title should be changed after there has been some time to study how the civil unions bill works.
Steven Goldstein, director of the gay rights advocacy organization Garden State Equality, said he expects gay couples to be able to marry in New Jersey within two years.
His group and others have been talking about political strategies and litigation to try to get full marriage rights.