Moments before Marilyn Maneely's funeral Mass was set to begin, Diane Marini had to ask the priest for a special favor.
Marini didn't want the priest to refer to her as Maneely's "friend," because she felt the couple's 14-year relationship warranted a stronger word, even if same-sex marriage was not allowed in New Jersey.
"It would have been a huge slap in the face," said Marini, 55, of Haddonfield. "He called me her spouse. He was great. Words do carry meaning, and that still stays with me today."
The New Jersey Civil Union Review Commission, which released its final report Wednesday after an 18-month investigation, agreed with Marini, claiming that marriage for gay and lesbian couples is the only way to reverse the financial, legal and psychological harm attached to civil unions.
"New Jersey's civil-union law is one the biggest civil-rights disasters New Jersey has ever seen," said Steven Goldstein, the commission's vice chairman and the chairman of Garden State Equality, New Jersey's leading gay-rights group.
The biggest problem, the commission claims, is that civil unions are not considered completely equal with married, heterosexual couples. The 79-page report sites examples, such as a woman who was unable to get information about her partner while being treated for a life-threatening condition.
"It reinforces that separate is never equal," said Pat Taddei, co-moderator of the Lesbian Social Network of South Jersey, based in Collingswood, Camden County.
Connecticut and Massachusetts are the only states to allow gay marriage, and both were ordered to do so by their highest courts. Voters in California shot down same-sex marriage last month, despite a ruling that said it was unconstitutional to do so.
Marini and other New Jersey couples spearheaded the call for gay marriage when they filed a lawsuit against the state in 2002. They eventually lost in the state's Supreme Court, but the state legislature was ordered to come up with a solution that would afford all the same rights and privileges as marriage, without using that word.
For Marini, who had registered with Maneely under New Jersey's 2004 domestic-partnership law, only the word "marriage" will make gay and lesbian couples equal with the rest of the state.
"We want the same exact thing our neighbors, sisters and brothers get when they love someone and want to make a life with them," she said.
Opponents of gay marriage in New Jersey want the issue put to a vote as it was in California, and not determined by a court or state legislature.
The Conservatives With Attitude blog claimed the panel was filled with "overtly pro-gay advocates and activists."
Gov. Jon Corzine has said he would approve a same-sex marriage bill.