Conservative groups in New Jersey are pushing a proposal that would grant the rights of marriage - but not the title - to gays, siblings and others involved in domestic partnerships. The plan comes in reaction to a landmark Supreme Court ruling last month that said gay couples in New Jersey should have access to the same rights and benefits as married couples. Whether to call those rights marriages, civil unions or something else was left up to lawmakers.
Under the conservatives' plan, rights would be available to gay couples, relatives and other twosomes who are not eligible to marry, said Len Deo, president of the New Jersey Family Policy Council. Unrelated opposite-sex couples, who can legally marry, would not be eligible for the designation.
For instance, a brother and sister who live together would be able to register under what supporters call an "equal benefits" bill. That way, one sibling could be covered under the other's employer-sponsored health insurance, and the survivor would not be taxed on inheritance if the other died.
Making the law broad would avoid something distasteful to many conservatives - elevating the relationships of same-sex couples to the same legal status enjoyed by married couples.
"We're going to vigorously oppose civil unions if it raises up to marriage without the m-word," said John Tomicki, president of the New Jersey Coalition to Preserve and Protect Marriage, a group of clergy, scholars and conservative groups.
'A red herring'?
Steven Goldstein, executive director of the gay rights group Garden State Equality, said the measure was a long shot to pass and, if it did, would not satisfy the state Supreme Court's requirements.
"It's a red herring for anti-gay vitriol," Goldstein said.
The plan is one in a wide range of options lawmakers have to consider. Conservative groups also are backing a constitutional amendment that would define marriage as being between only a man and a woman.
Some lawmakers, backed by gay civil rights leaders, are pushing for full marriage rights - and the name - for gays. Gay rights activists say that it's important for them to be able to call their unions "marriage" because everyone understands what that term means, unlike "civil unions."
Key lawmakers in the Democratic majority in the Legislature say they favor letting gay couples register in civil unions that would offer all the benefits of marriage but not the title. Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts Jr. has said action may be taken by the end of the year.
State Sen. Gerald Cardinale, one of the most socially conservative members of the Legislature, said he would support an "equal benefits" law because it does not discriminate against people who are not gay.