NEW YORK -- With a mandate from New Jersey's highest court to offer gay couples the same rights as heterosexuals, the state Legislature voted yesterday to create civil unions, but stopped short of using the word "marriage."
Governor Jon Corzine, a Democrat, has said he will sign the bill into law, making New Jersey the third state to offer civil unions, which extends to gays and lesbians all the rights that state law affords married people, but gives them a status separate from heterosexuals.
Corzine, who does not support gay marriage, will review the details "sooner, rather than later," said a spokesman, Anthony Coley.
The proposal passed in the Assembly, 56 to 19, and in the Senate, 23 to 12.
During debate, Senator Loretta Weinberg, the prime sponsor of the bill, suggested that the Legislature might change the words "civil union" to "marriage."
"This is the art of the possible," she said. "The possible is to guarantee to the couples that I know, people who have been together longer than the average marriage lasts in the state of New Jersey . . . all the same legal rights that I enjoyed in my almost 40 years of marriage."
New Jersey lawmakers have danced warily around the question of same-sex marriage in recent years. The Legislature passed a domestic-partnership law in 2004, but that accorded only limited legal rights.
Gay couples still are not afforded about 100 legal rights possessed by married straight couples, advocates say, ranging from the ability to be at the hospital bed of an ill partner to certain inheritance rights to laws governing taxes and adoption.
Seven gay couples sued the state, and in October New Jersey's Supreme Court ruled, 4 to 3, that "the unequal dispensation of rights and benefits to committed same-sex partners can no longer be tolerated under our state constitution."
The court gave the Legislature 180 days to craft a fix.
Yesterday's measure would write civil unions into all sections of the state's marriage laws, including those governing divorce, prenuptial agreements, custody, inheritance, and power of attorney in financial and medical matters.
It also would create a three-year commission to examine whether the state should establish full gay marriage rights.
Only one state, Massachusetts, has legalized marriage for gay couples, with the Legislature there also acting under pressure from the state's highest court.
The League of American Families has opposed New Jersey's bill, saying marriage should be between a man and a woman. Last week, the group proposed an initiative that would give special rights to people who live in the same home or care for family members, regardless of their sexual relationships.
Gay advocates have also expressed dissatisfaction with the legislation. "There are huge mixed emotions," said Steven Goldstein, director of Equality New Jersey. "The law didn't go far enough and was not marriage equality."
But, he said, as cultural mores shift, he is optimistic about possibilities for gay marriage rights.