TRENTON, N.J. (AP) - New Jersey is moving to become the fifth state in the nation to institute civil unions.
Gov. Jon S. Corzine was to sign a civil unions bill on Thursday. The law will take effect Feb. 19.
New Jersey will join Connecticut and Vermont as states that allow civil unions for gay couples. Massachusetts allows gay couples to marry, while California has domestic partnerships that bring full marriage rights.
Once joined in civil union, gay couples will gain adoption, inheritance, hospital visitation, medical decision-making and alimony rights and the right not to testify against a partner in court.
The civil unions bill passed the Legislature on Dec. 14 in response to an October state Supreme Court order that gay couples be granted the same rights as married couples. The court gave lawmakers six months to act but left it to them to decide whether to call the unions "marriage" or something else.
Gay couples welcome the law, but some argue that not calling the relationship "marriage" creates a different, inferior institution.
Gay rights group Garden State Equality has promised to push lawmakers to change the terminology to "marriage." Others are considering lawsuits to force full recognition of gay marriage.
The bill creates a commission that will regularly review the law and recommend possible changes.
Corzine, a Democrat, said that seems a reasonable approach, but said calling the arrangement a civil union rather than gay marriage is preferable.
"For most people marriage has a religious connotation, and for many there is a view that that term is not consistent with the teachings of their religious belief," the governor said. "So there is not democratic support in the broader society for that label, even though there is strong support for equal protection under the law."
Social conservative groups and lawmakers opposed the measure, reasoning it brings gay relationships too close to marriage, but it easily passed the legislature. Some have vowed to push to amend the state constitution to ban same-sex marriage, but Democrats who control the legislature said such proposals won't be heard.
The three-day waiting period required by the law is the same as with marriage licenses. Licenses will be valid for 30 days, and ceremonies can be officiated by anyone who performs weddings, including clergy and mayors. As with marriages, civil unions will have to be witnessed by one additional adult.
Associated Press writer Geoff Mulvihill in Mount Laurel contributed to this report.
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