NEWARK, N.J. (AP) _ For more than four years, Saundra Toby-Heath has waited for the state of New Jersey to recognize her partner as her wife.
She moved a step closer Thursday when the Legislature approved a bill that will create civil unions. Upon the governor's signature, New Jersey will become the third state to allow civil unions between same-sex couples.
``We acknowledge this is a huge step forward,'' said Toby-Heath, 53, who along with her partner were among seven gay couples who sued the state for the right to marry.
Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine said he would sign the measure, which would extend to same-sex couples all the rights and privileges available under state law to married people. The bill passed the Assembly 56-19 and the Senate 23-12.
Massachusetts is the only state to allow gay marriage. Vermont and Connecticut have civil unions, and California has domestic partnerships that work similarly. Since 2004, New Jersey has had a more limited version of domestic partnerships.
Among the benefits gay couples would get under New Jersey's civil unions bill are adoption rights, hospital visitation rights and inheritance rights. Officials could begin granting civil unions 60 days after the governor signs the legislation; Corzine did not say when he would do so.
The bill was drafted in response to a 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.
The measure is not without detractors. Social conservative groups opposed it, reasoning that it brings gay relationships too close in standing to marriage. Some are vowing to push to amend the state constitution to ban gay marriage.
And gay rights groups have argued that not calling such unions ``marriage'' creates a different, and inferior, institution. But they welcomed Thursday's legislation as a step toward gaining the right to marry.
Toby-Heath and her partner, Alicia Heath-Toby, are eager to learn what ``civil union'' really means. They wonder whether to register for a civil union or wait to see if the state eventually grants couples like them the right to call it a ``marriage.''