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Justices of the peace are briefed on Connecticut's new civil-union law

MIDDLETOWN, Conn. -- As a new law allowing same-sex civil unions takes effect this week, justices of the peace, clergy, and town clerks are entering uncharted waters.

''On Oct. 1, civil unions become law in Connecticut, but there is not a JP in that room who knows what to do with it," said Saul Haffner, president of Justices of the Peace of Connecticut, which held a conference yesterday to answer questions about civil unions. ''It's going to be a mess."

Connecticut is the first state to pass a civil union law without court pressure. Vermont is the only other state that allows civil unions and Massachusetts is the only state that allows same-sex marriages.

Connecticut law does not require justices and clergy to perform civil unions and some of them, such as Steven R. Mullins, a justice from West Haven, said they will not do so because of their religious beliefs.

But others who plan to perform the unions, which will confer the same rights as marriage, attended yesterday's conference to make sure they know what they're doing.

Carmela Apuzzo, a justice of the peace in Orange, did not plan to perform civil unions. But then she sought advice from a priest, who told her she would simply be performing civil ceremonies.

''This has nothing to do with religion," she said. ''It's a contract. I will definitely encourage other people to think of it like that."

Nearly 200 justices at yesterday's conference had plenty of questions. They wanted to know what happens if heterosexual couples want civil unions (they can't have them) and what to do about transgendered people (justices were advised to refer to the gender on their birth certificates.)

They also must decide what to say at the end of the ceremony. They've been advised to pronounce couples partners in life rather than husband and wife.

Other things will be slightly different from marriages. Civil union applications will have spaces for ''party 1" and ''party 2" rather than ''bride" and ''groom." And the seals cities and towns use to make licenses official will be changed to say ''vital statistics" rather than ''marriage, birth or death."

Haffner said justices of the peace are preparing for a rush of couples who may want to have civil union ceremonies on Oct. 1, the day the law takes effect, or soon afterward. The 2000 census found 7,400 same-sex couples in Connecticut.

The Family Institute of Connecticut, which opposes gay marriage and civil unions, plans a protest at the Capitol that day.

But Carol Buckheit of Love Makes a Family, the state's major gay-rights advocacy group, said many couples did not schedule civil unions for Oct. 1, a Saturday, because it was not clear whether city and town halls would be open to issue licenses.

A few town clerks have regular Saturday hours, a handful will open on Oct. 1 just to issue civil union licenses, and others still have not decided.

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