updated 3/20/2007 8:46:05 PM ET 2007-03-21T00:46:05

At least 219 gay couples applied to join in civil unions during the first month the legal institution was available in New Jersey, a state agency said in a report issued Tuesday.

Civil unions offer gay couples the legal benefits of marriage — but not the title. New Jersey lawmakers created the institution last December in response to a state Supreme Court ruling two months earlier that said it was unconstitutional to deny gay couples access to the protections of marriage.

New Jersey’s civil unions law took effect Feb. 19. The data reported Tuesday by the state Health and Senior Services Department covers the period from then until March 19. The data may not be complete, since some counties might not have yet submitted their records and some couples may have applied for licenses but have not yet joined.

The number was far smaller than activists had expected. By comparison, about 500 gay and lesbian couples registered on the day New Jersey’s domestic partnership law went into effect in 2004. That law was simpler to take advantage of, but offered only a handful of the benefits extended in the civil union law.

The difference may be a result of couples hoping that they will be allowed to marry in the next few years, said Steven Goldstein, chairman of Garden State Equality, a gay political advocacy group.

Only Massachusetts allows gay marriage
In the United States, only Massachusetts allows gay couples to marry. Vermont and Connecticut also have civil unions and California has domestic partnerships that offer benefits similar to the civil unions.

Gay rights advocates in New Jersey are promising to keep pushing for the right to marry, while some social conservatives are campaigning to amend the state constitution to ban gay marriage.

Civil unions can be officiated by judges, mayors or clergy — the same people authorized to perform weddings.

The legal benefits include the right to file taxes jointly, inheritance and adoption rights, and the ability to make medical decisions on a partner’s behalf. However, the federal government and most states do not recognize the unions.

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