gay pride flag 88.
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The gay marriage issue in the state of New Jersey is moving from a legal dispute to a political one.
The state Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled that New Jersey must extend all the rights of marriage to gay couples. But the justices left it to state lawmakers to decide whether to provide those rights in the form of marriages, civil unions or something else - and gave the Legislature 180 days to reach a decision.
Three justices, including Chief Justice Deborah Poritz, dissented, arguing that the four-member majority did not go far enough. They demanded gay couples be given the right to marry.
Several Democratic lawmakers said they would push for full marriage rights.
But some Republicans, the minority party in both houses of the Legislature, said they would seek a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Republican Assemblyman Richard Merkt vowed to have the justices impeached.
"Neither the framers of New Jersey's 1947 constitution, nor the voters who ratified it, ever remotely contemplated the possibility of same-sex marriage," Merkt said.
State Senate President Richard J. Codey and Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts Jr. pledged in a joint statement to block an anti-gay marriage amendment. They also complained that the court-imposed deadline allows too little time to define the type of union that would be granted to gay couples.
The New Jersey Supreme Court ruling is similar to the 1999 high-court ruling in Vermont that led that state to create civil unions, which confer all the rights and benefits available to married couples under state law.
"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 New Jersey's four-member majority.
The court said the Legislature "must either amend the marriage statutes to include same-sex couples or create a parallel statutory structure" that gives gay couples all the privileges and obligations afforded to married couples.
National gay rights advocates embraced the ruling. Lara Schwartz, legal director of Human Rights Campaign, said if legislators have to choose between civil unions and marriage, it is a no-lose situation for gay couples.
"They get to decide whether it's chocolate or double-chocolate chip," she said.
But the leader of Garden State Equality, New Jersey's most influential gay rights group, said the ruling falls short of the organization's desired goal of the right to marriage.
"We get to go from the back of the bus to the middle of the bus," chairman Steven Goldstein said.
Cindy Meneghin, who with her partner joined other couples in suing the state for the right to marry, said during a news conference in Newark that the court's ruling left her "feeling butterflies."
She said her thoughts turned to the day in a Catholic high school gym when she first saw her partner of more than 30 years.
"Will you, Maureen Kilian, marry me?" Meneghin tearfully said to her partner.
"Yes, if the Legislature lets us," Kilian responded.
New Jersey adopted a domestic partnership law in 2004 giving gay couples some of the same rights as married couples, but the gay marriage debate has never played out fully in the Statehouse.
It might have, had former Gov. James E. McGreevey, who resigned in 2004 after announcing that he was gay and had an affair with a male staff member, made it a priority. He has said he did not support gay marriage at the time because he was afraid of being perceived as gay.
"I applaud the court's courage," McGreevey said Wednesday. "I regret not having had the fortitude to embrace this right during my tenure as governor."