Catherine Hecht, 37, of Jersey City, and her partner, Beth Achenbach, 39, are planning a small, private civil union ceremony to take advantage of a New Jersey state law -- taking effect today -- giving gays and lesbians marriage rights.
The New Jersey state law gives same-sex couples forming civil unions all 800 benefits and obligations that New Jersey state law grants to married spouses. It also prohibits discrimination against people in civil unions.
However, the law confers none of the federal benefits of marriage and is not valid in other states.
"You have to take what you can get when you get it," said Hecht, executive director for the Jersey City Lesbian and Gay Outreach.
"It's creating a second-class citizenship, which there's no reason to do," Hecht said, noting that most people aren't familiar with the term "civil union," and that can create problems with insurance, hospitals and job applications.
Currently, Massachusetts is the only state to allow same-sex marriages. Vermont, Connecticut and now New Jersey have civil union laws.
In 2006, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to receive the same state-level benefits, protections and obligations as opposite-sex married couples.
As a result of the ruling, the New Jersey legislature voted in late 2006 to offer civil unions to same-sex couples, a law which takes effect today.
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.
"What's happening now is our country is trying to find consensus on the issue of partnership recognition for same-sex couples," said Marti Rouse, national field director for the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.
"States like New Jersey are taking big steps in the right direction toward full equality," said Rouse. "But there's no full equality until there's marriage equality."
Rouse said that a majority of Americans, while still uncomfortable with homosexuality, believe that same-sex couples should be granted rights and benefits. However, Rouse said, many Americans are hung up with granting full marriage rights, equating marriage with religion.
"Marriage is a legal term," said Rouse. "When more Americans understand that marriage is mostly a legal term, we hope that the institution of marriage will extend marriage equality to same-sex couples so that they can be fully protected under the law," said Rouse.
The Human Rights Campaign estimates there are 45 states that already have statutes or state constitutional amendments that limit marriage to a man and a woman.
But it points to other states that may pass civil union legislation this year, including Oregon, New Hampshire and Hawaii. Rouse said that New York Gov. Elliot Spitzer has also promised to introduce marriage equality legislation this year.
While gay advocates are optimistic about state legislation, the Human Rights Campaign has yet to endorse a 2008 presidential candidate.