TRENTON, N.J. (AP) _ Under pressure from New Jersey's highest court to offer marriage or its equivalent to gay couples, the state Assembly approved a bill Thursday to create civil unions.
The measure passed 56-19. The state Senate was expected to take up the bill later in the day.
The legislation _ which would extend to gay couples all the rights and privileges available under state law to married people _ would make New Jersey the third state with civil unions.
``Love counts,'' Democratic Assemblyman Wilfredo Caraballo, a chief sponsor of the bill, said as the debate opened. ``The gender of whom one loves should not matter to the state.''
But Republican Asseblyman Ronald S. Dancer said: ``It's my personal belief, faith and religious practice that marriage has been defined in the Bible. And this is one time that I cannot compromise my personal beliefs and faiths.''
Democratic Gov. Jon S. Corzine said he would sign the measure into law if it passed.
Massachusetts is the only state to allow gay marriage. Vermont and Connecticut have civil unions, and California has domestic partnerships that work similarly.
Among the benefits gay couples would get under New Jersey's civil unions bill are adoption rights, hospital visitation rights and inheritance rights.
Gay rights advocates welcomed the bill as a step forward but said they would continue to push for the right to marry.
The bill was drafted in response to a landmark New Jersey Supreme Court ruling in October that required the state to extend the rights and benefits of marriage to gay couples within 180 days. The court, in its 4-3 ruling, left it up to the Legislature to decide whether to call such unions ``marriages'' or something else.
Gay rights groups have argued that not calling the arrangement ``marriage'' creates a different, and inferior, institution. Some conservatives argued against civil unions altogether, and Republican Sen. Robert Singer said Thursday he wanted to add a provision to the bill defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
Steven Goldstein, director of the gay rights advocacy organization Garden State Equality, said he expects gay couples to be able to get married in New Jersey within two years.