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Gay couples file for civil union licenses in New Jersey

Hundreds win legal rights automatically

Daniel Gross (left) and partner Steven Goldstein displayed their civil union certificate yesterday in Teaneck, N.J. (TIM LARSEN/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

TEANECK, N.J. -- Hundreds of gay couples won the same legal rights, if not the title, as married couples yesterday as New Jersey became the latest state to offer civil unions.

More than a dozen other couples applied for licenses for ceremonies later in the week.

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.

Couples who had not been joined previously could apply for licenses but must wait 72 hours before they can hold civil union ceremonies, the same waiting period for weddings.

Several, such as Marty Finkle and Michael Plake, plan to exchange vows Thursday.

"This is as close to marriage as we're going to get for right now," Finkle said after he and Plake applied for their civil union license at the town hall in South Orange early yesterday.

A few dozen friends and local officials cheered as they filled out the requisite form.

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.

Supporters of gay marriage say they may sue, contending that civil unions do not create the equality the court ordered.

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 laws or amendments that ban same-sex marriage.

Among the hundreds of benefits under the civil unions law, gay couples get rights dealing with adoption, child custody, visiting a hospitalized partner, making medical decisions, and getting the same access to health insurance coverage that employers offer spouses of workers. Civil union partners 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 be allowed to visit.

Only one state -- Massachusetts -- allows marriage for same-sex couples. California, Connecticut, and Vermont have laws similar to New Jersey's. Gay rights activists in Connecticut, however, are pushing for legislation this session that would allow same-sex couples to marry. Connecticut's civil union system is also being challenged in court by advocates of same-sex marriage.

Despite the Presidents' Day holiday, a handful of town halls around the state opened to accept license applications for the unions. At least 20 couples applied in Asbury Park, Collingswood, Lambertville, and South Orange.

Thomas Mannix and Kevin Pilla arrived at Asbury Park City Hall at about 11:30 p.m. Sunday so that they could be among the first to fill out the application.

"The things being granted are long overdue and very important to have, so we wanted to take advantage of it as soon as it was available," said Mannix, a 44-year-old business analyst.

Mannix said he and Pilla would hold a simple ceremony on Thursday as part of a party sponsored by Garden State Equality, a statewide gay rights group.

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