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New Jersey Begins Offering Civil Unions

Shortly after midnight, Steven Goldstein and Daniel Gross renewed their vows as New Jersey became the third state in the nation to offer civil unions for gay couples.

The law that took effect Monday was "a big giant step forward," said state Sen. Loretta Weinberg, a prime sponsor of the civil unions law, who hosted ceremonies for couples including Goldstein and Gross.

The civil unions, which offer the legal benefits but not the title of marriage, were granted automatically to the hundreds of gay New Jersey couples who had previously been joined in civil unions or married in other states or nations.

For Goldstein and Gross, that meant reaffirming their Vermont civil union. They would have had the rights in New Jersey even without holding the midnight ceremony.

Their civil union license — No. 1 — was completed at 12:09 a.m. Monday by Teaneck registrar Laura Turnbull.

Elsewhere across the state, a handful of town halls opened at 12:01 a.m. to accept license applications from couples who had not been joined previously. They must wait 72 hours before they can hold civil union ceremonies — just like with weddings — and several planned to exchange vows early Thursday.

Among those couples were Marty Finkle and Michael Plake of South Orange. A few dozen friends, Finkle's 17-year-old daughter and several local officials cheered as they filled out paperwork in their town hall.

Finkle and Plake also were among the first New Jersey couples to register in a domestic partnership in 2004. Domestic partnerships offered a handful of the benefits and obligations of civil unions.

Among the many new benefits under the civil unions law, gay couples gain the rights to adoption, child custody, visiting a hospitalized partner and making medical decisions. They also now have the right not to testify against a partner in state court.

However, the federal government and most states do not recognize the unions. That means, for instance, that a surviving member of a civil union would not be entitled to his deceased partner's Social Security benefits. And if a partner is hospitalized in another state, the other may not have an automatic visitation right.

New Jersey lawmakers hastily created civil unions in December, less than two months after a state Supreme Court decision held that gay couples had a right to the same benefits as married couples.

Gay rights activists in the state say they'll continue to press for full marriage rights through both political channels and lawsuits. Some social conservative groups, meanwhile, are pledging to block same-sex marriage by pressing for an amendment to the state constitution that prohibits such unions.

Forty-five states have legal or constitutional bans on same-sex marriages. Only Massachusetts allows gay couples to marry, while California offers domestic partnerships.

Goldstein, chairman of the gay rights group Garden State Equality, and Gross, a vice president at Goldman Sachs, held their ceremony behind a desk in a cramped office.

There were several kisses, a prayer reading, friends and journalists, but no music, no dancing and none of the breaking-of-the-glass that is traditional in Jewish weddings.

The couple did that in a Jewish wedding service in Canada in 2002 — the first same-sex union featured in the wedding pages of The New York Times — and promised even grander festivities if they eventually gain the right to marry in New Jersey.

As part of their ceremony, their rabbi, Elliott Tepperman, asked the people gathered: "Do you vow to continue your support for true marriage equality?"

"This was really all about receiving a piece of paper that had some recognition of our status," Gross said.

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