TRENTON, N.J. – New Jersey’s Supreme Court opened the door to gay marriage Wednesday, ruling that homosexuals are entitled to the same rights as heterosexuals, but leaving it to lawmakers to legalize same-sex unions.
The high court gave lawmakers 180 days to rewrite marriage laws to either include same-sex couples or create a new system of civil unions for them.
The ruling is similar to the 1999 decision in Vermont that led to civil unions there, which offer the benefits of marriage, but not the name.
“Although we cannot find that a fundamental right to same-sex marriage exists in this state, the unequal dispensation of rights and benefits to committed same-sex partners can no longer be tolerated under our state Constitution,” Justice Barry T. Albin wrote for the 4-3 majority’s decision.
Outside the Supreme Court, news of the ruling caused confusion, with many of the roughly 100 gay marriage supporters outside asking each other what it meant. Many started to agree that they needed to push for a state constitutional amendment to institute gay marriage.
Garden State Equality, New Jersey’s main gay and lesbian political organization quickly announced Wednesday that three lawmakers would introduce a bill in the Legislature to get full marriage rights to same-sex couples.
Gay couples in New Jersey can already apply for domestic partnerships under a law the Legislature passed in 2004 giving gay couples some benefits of marriage, such as the right to inherit possessions if there is no will and healthcare coverage for state workers.
Democratic Gov. Jon S. Corzine supports domestic partnerships, but not gay marriage.
Supporters pushing for full gay marriage have had a two-year losing streak in state courts including New York, Washington, and in both Nebraska and Georgia, where voter-approved bans on gay marriage were reinstated.
They also have suffered at the ballot boxes in 15 states where constitutions have been amended to ban same-sex unions.
Cases similar to the one ruled on Wednesday, which was filed by seven by gay New Jersey couples, are pending in California, Connecticut, Iowa and Maryland.
“New Jersey is a stepping stone,” said Matt Daniels, president of the Virginia-based Alliance for Marriage, a group pushing for an amendment to the federal Constitution to outlaw same-sex marriage. “It’s not about New Jersey.”