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N.J. Senate vote grants gays many marriage rights

TRENTON, N.J. -- Gay and lesbian advocates cheered and hugged, and some openly wept, as the state Senate voted yesterday to give them many of the same rights as legally married couples.

Without a word of opposition, the Senate voted, 23 to 9, to approve a bill granting those rights. Governor James E. McGreevey is expected to sign the measure into law shortly.

Gay and lesbian advocates campaigned to make New Jersey the fifth state to recognize domestic partners. Conservative and religious groups opposed the measure, saying it threatened traditional marriage values.

When the vote was tallied, many of the several hundred supporters who crammed into the Senate gallery cheered.

Under the legislation, domestic partners would get access to medical benefits, insurance, and other legal rights. New Jersey would also recognize such partnerships granted in other states. The bill does not authorize gay marriage, which is against the law in New Jersey.

To obtain domestic-partner status, a couple would have to share a residence and show proof of joint financial status or property ownership or designation of the partner as the beneficiary in a retirement plan or will. Details about registration must be worked out.

The bill would not force businesses to offer health coverage to same-sex partners of employees but would require insurance companies to make it available. It would also allow a surviving partner to gain property rights and other survivors' benefits.

The measure includes some benefits for domestic unions between unmarried heterosexual couples age 62 and over.

Gay and lesbian organizations celebrated the vote, saying it would finally provide same-sex couples with such rights as being able to get medical information about a partner who is hospitalized.

The vote outraged conservative groups, and they threatened to fight any law in court.

John Tomicki, executive director of the League of American Families, said the bill discriminates against unmarried heterosexual couples who are domestic partners under age 62.

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