TEANECK, New Jersey (Reuters) - Steven Goldstein and Daniel Gross were among the first gay couples in New Jersey to be joined together in a civil union on Monday as a state law granting marriage rights to same-sex partners took effect at midnight.
“It’s exciting to know that in the coming days and weeks so many couples in New Jersey will get additional rights and protection that they couldn’t have had 15 minutes ago,” Gross said. “It’s not enough but it’s a step in the right direction.”
New Jersey became the third U.S. state in December 2006 to provide equal rights for same-sex couples in committed relationships known as civil unions. The state Supreme Court deferred to the legislature a decision on whether to call their relationships “marriage” and lawmakers opted to call them “civil unions.”
“Marriage is the only currency of commitment the world understands,” said Goldstein, chairman of Garden State Equality, a gay rights advocacy group, as he and Gross vowed to fight for actual marriage rights in the state instead of just civil unions.
Massachusetts is the only U.S. state to have legalized same-sex marriage, which supporters say is necessary to establish true equality for homosexual partnerships. Connecticut and Vermont have civil union laws.
Under the New Jersey law, couples must wait three days after applying before being granted a civil union license. Goldstein and Gross, however, took advantage of an exemption to the waiting period for couples who already have registered their civil union in another state.
Goldstein, 44, and Gross, 36, have been together for more then 14 years and hope to be legally married in New Jersey within the next two years.
Their union was formalized in Teaneck in the office of state Sen. Loretta Weinberg, one of the key sponsors of the civil union legislation.
Several towns opened their doors at midnight to couples who wanted to be among the first to apply for a license for a civil union, which grants benefits such as adoption and inheritance rights.
“We wanted to send a message that this is a concept we’re open with,” said David DelVecchio, mayor of Lambertville, one of the towns that opened at midnight for the occasion.
The New Jersey law does not impose residency requirements, and Lambertville, on the border with Pennsylvania, has received requests from about 25 out-of-state couples, according to the mayor.
Opponents of same-sex marriage fear homosexual couples from other states could obtain licenses in New Jersey and then sue their home state to recognize the civil union.
Gay marriage advocates have had some successes in the courtroom. Both Massachusetts’ gay marriage and the New Jersey’s civil union law were prompted by court rulings.
Opponents of the New Jersey law are campaigning to amend the state’s constitution to define marriage as a union between a man and woman, while gay rights advocates are pushing for the state to recognize gay marriage.
Both sides have to contend with public opinion that seems comfortable the current compromise. A Rutgers-Eagleton poll in November showed public support for civil unions but opposition to gay marriage and to amending the state constitution.
Writing and additional reporting by Tom Hals