MOUNT LAUREL, N.J. (AP) - Clergy in New Jersey cannot be required to unite gay couples in civil unions, the state attorney general announced Thursday in a decision that quelled the fears of some religious groups opposed to same-sex ceremonies.
Attorney General Stuart Rabner's legal opinion, sent in a letter to the state registrar of vital statistics, came less than a month after the state became the third to offer gay couples civil unions. The unions give the legal benefits of marriage, but not the title. Couples may begin applying for licenses on Feb. 19 and can be united 72 hours later.
Under the law, all the same people who perform marriages - among them clergy, judges, mayors and other local officials - can preside over civil union ceremonies.
Some opponents of civil unions said they feared the law would give gay rights activists the ability to sue to force clergy to perform the ceremonies.
Patrick R. Brannigan, executive director of the New Jersey Catholic Conference, which lobbies on behalf of the state's Roman Catholic dioceses, said Thursday that he had feared Catholic clergy could be accused of hate crimes when they deny requests to perform civil union ceremonies.
Rabner's opinion puts that to rest, he said. "It recognizes our right to practice our faith," Brannigan said.
Vincent Fields, the pastor at Greater Works Ministries in Absecon, said he does not expect anyone to ask him to perform a civil union ceremony because they know his firm anti-gay stance. Still, he said he was reassured by Thursday's opinion. "They shouldn't have the right to make us do something against the word of God," he said.
Gay rights advocates also welcomed the opinion and said it came as no surprise.
"It's always been true that religious groups can say no to any couple that wants to get married," said David S. Buckel, the marriage project director for Lambda Legal.
Rabner said religious rites performed by clergy are exempt from the state's law against discrimination so, unlike municipal officials, they cannot be compelled to perform civil unions.
"There is no statutory bar to a member of the clergy declining to solemnize civil unions in accordance with sincerely held religious beliefs, even though that religious figure regularly solemnizes marriages," Rabner wrote.
In another opinion issued last month, Rabner said that mayors and other non-clergy who regularly perform marriages cannot turn down gay couples who ask to have civil unions performed. Those officials, he said, will have to perform the unions or stop doing all weddings.
To perform any marriage requested but then turn down civil unions would be a violation of the anti-discrimination law, he said.
However, officials who only occasionally perform weddings - for couples they know well, for instance - the requirement to also do civil unions would be handled on a case-by-case basis, Rabner said.
The civil officials could be pressed into service more often than the clergy for civil unions. While some gay couples are planning wedding-like civil union ceremonies, many in New Jersey say they plan to take low-key approaches.
Little Ferry couple Charlie Paragian and Danny Sernekos are planning to enter into a civil union, but Paragian said they aren't going to do it at the United Church of Christ church they attend.
"I certainly don't want to have a civil union performed in my church because it goes against my religion," he said.
Only full-fledged marriages should be performed in church, he said.
Copyright © 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. The information contained in the AP News report may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without the prior written authority of The Associated Press.