MAPLEWOOD, N.J. – Hundreds of same-sex couples gathered to register domestic partnerships on Saturday, the first day of a new law in New Jersey that gives gay partners some of the same rights as married couples.
More than 200 people attended a morning ceremony marking the law going into effect. Many arrived hours early, sitting on the municipal building's steps or on lawn chairs while filling out domestic partnership applications.
"This is a very great day in New Jersey's civil rights history," said Mayor Fred Profeta (search). "The civil rights achieved today are very important — don't anyone doubt that."
Some 40 applications, which attest to the signers being domestic partners, had been handed out as of 9:30 a.m. After completing the paperwork, couples planned to draw numbers to determine their place in a line to receive notarization.
Cathy Schenone arrived at 7:30 a.m. with her partner, Michele Tollefson, 46.
"It kind of validates that we've been together 10 years and deserve the same rights as everyone else," said Schenone, 40, of Wanaque.
The domestic partnership law (search), passed in January, grants some legal rights to registered couples, including the ability to make medical decisions for each other.
It allows partners to have some joint rights in filing state taxes, to be exempt from state inheritance taxes in the case of a partner's death and to extend the benefits given to state employees to cover domestic partners.
The law also covers unmarried heterosexual couples ages 62 and older. It does not legalize gay marriage and offers far fewer rights than those given to heterosexual married couples.
Many attending the ceremony wore buttons reading "The next step: marriage equality."
Schenone said she was pleased with the new law because she can be added to her partner's health insurance policy.
"There really are some great benefits to it," Schenone said. "Hopefully it will lead to marriage."
New Jersey is the fifth state in the nation to officially recognize same-sex coupling. In April, Maine's governor signed a bill creating domestic partnerships there.
Domestic partner benefits have been granted in California and Hawaii. Vermont has approved civil unions and Massachusetts recently legalized same-sex marriage.
Catholic and conservative groups have raised objections to the New Jersey law, but so far no lawsuits have been filed to block it, said Patrick DeAlmeida, a deputy state Attorney General.
Maplewood was one of several municipalities with large gay populations that planned to open offices this weekend; most other towns didn't plan to start registering couples until Monday.
The South Orange clerk's office was opening at 12:01 a.m. Saturday to register couples.
"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 (search).
Couples must bring government-issued identification and show proof of shared financial assets to a municipal registrar's office. There is no waiting period.