PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - New Jersey should follow two other U.S. states and allow same-sex couples to marry rather than just enter into civil unions, as the law currently permits, a state commission recommended on Wednesday.
In a report that could lead to New Jersey legalizing gay marriage, the Civil Union Review Commission said same-sex couples cannot achieve equality with heterosexual couples if their legal status is restricted to civil unions.
Full marriage is the only way to meet a state constitutional requirement for equality, said the 13-member panel of public officials, clergy, lawyers and same-sex marriage advocates.
The panel was picked by the governor, other state officials and state agencies and charged with evaluating New Jersey's civil union law and making a recommendation. Its recommendation was unanimous.
"The Commission finds that the separate categorization established by the Civil Union Act invites and encourages unequal treatment of same-sex couples and their children," the panel said in a 79-page report based on an 18-month investigation.
Citing "overwhelming evidence," it said "civil unions will not be recognized by the general public as the equivalent of marriage in New Jersey."
New Jersey's state Supreme Court ruled in 2006 that same-sex couples are entitled to the same civil rights as heterosexual couples but declined to say whether a same-sex union should be called marriage.
The court handed the question to the state legislature which created the civil unions law in 2007.
The commission's report may now revive legislative efforts to legalize gay marriage, said Joseph Roberts, speaker of the Democrat-controlled Assembly.
"Same-sex marriage in New Jersey is only a matter of 'when', not 'if,'" Roberts said in a statement. "The report should spark a renewed sense of purpose and urgency to overcoming one of society's last remaining barriers to full equality for all residents."
Gov. Jon Corzine said the issue should be resolved "sooner rather than later" because civil unions appear to have fostered inequality by creating a separate class of relationships.
"I encourage the legislature to seriously review the commission's report and ... I will sign marriage equality legislation when it reaches my desk," he said in a statement.
Two U.S. states, Massachusetts and Connecticut, have legalized same-sex marriage. Vermont, New Hampshire and Oregon also have civil union laws.
California voters in November approved an initiative denying marriage to same-sex couples, a vote that reversed a court decision to allow same-sex marriages. The California Supreme Court has agreed to hear arguments on whether the process of banning gay marriage was constitutional and until it decides on the case, the ban is in force.
In New Jersey, some people in same-sex relationships have been denied the health insurance provided to their partners because the provider does not recognize civil unions, the report said.
The New Jersey law also may prevent people in a same-sex couple from making medical decisions for a partner because a hospital may not accept civil unions as equal to marriage, it said.
Assemblyman Michael Doherty, a Republican who opposes same-sex marriage, said the issue should be settled by voters in a ballot.
"The people of New Jersey should decide just like they did in California so that a judge doesn't have to," he said.