New Jersey should move to allow gay marriage because civil unions are not providing same-sex couples with the protections and benefits granted to married heterosexual couples, according to a report released yesterday.

The report urged lawmakers to act quickly, arguing that civil unions send a message that same-sex couples are not equal to heterosexuals in the eyes of the law. The document was issued by a panel commissioned to evaluate New Jersey's civil-union law.

"This is the same message that racial-segregation laws wrongfully sent," the report states. "Separate treatment was wrong then and it is just as wrong now."

New Jersey's civil-union law took effect in February 2007, making it the third state in the nation to recognize civil unions.

The commission has held 18 public meetings and received hundreds of pages of written submissions from more than 150 witnesses. Seven of its members were appointed by the governor, Senate president or Assembly speaker; the six ex-officio members were appointed to represent various agencies of state government.

Among the themes that emerged from the testimony were that true equality could not be achieved if civil unions were legally distinct from heterosexual marriages and that the word

marriage

was "universally understood" and powerful. The panel also heard testimony that the children of same-sex couples would benefit from having the state sanction their parents' marriages and that civil unions were sometimes not recognized in other states.

"Same-sex couples across New Jersey are in pain, suffering economic, legal and social hardships," said Steven Goldstein, vice chairman of the commission and the chairman of Garden State Equality, which advocates for same-sex marriage. "Every day they are forced to endure the failure of the civil-union law is another day New Jersey is in injustice."

Assembly Speaker Joseph J. Roberts Jr. (D., Camden), said 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."

"As I have said many times before, same-sex marriage in New Jersey is only a matter of when, not if."

Gov. Corzine said that although his administration was focused on the economy, "it's clear that this issue of civil rights must be addressed sooner rather than later. I encourage the Legislature to seriously review the commission's report and, as I have said before, I will sign marriage-equality legislation when it reaches my desk."

But gay-marriage opponents may keep such a bill from ever getting there.

Assemblyman Michael Doherty (R., Washington) sponsored a bill to allow New Jerseyans to vote in a referendum, similar to Proposition 8 in California, to decide whether to allow gay marriage. Last month, Californians voted to deny same-sex couples the right to marry; the issue is tied up in the courts.

"This is a decision that should go to the voters," Doherty said. "There are people who are never going to let it happen. They want judges to decide or Trenton politicians."

Doherty said he believed that marriage should be defined as between a man and a woman, but that what mattered was what voters believed.

New Jersey is known as one of the nation's more liberal states. But when the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute last surveyed people on the issue of same-sex marriage - around the time civil unions first went into effect - 44 percent approved of gay marriage and 50 percent disapproved, said Clay Richards, assistant director of the poll.

"New Jersey is typical of many states, especially in the Northeast, where civil unions between gays are approved, but by a narrow margin, gay marriage is rejected," Richards said. "On the one hand, the public seems to think that gays have all the rights of married couples and should be given them through a civil ceremony, but when it comes to marriage, that is something more personal, so a number of people switch over."

Vermont, New Hampshire and Oregon also recognize civil unions. The commission heard testimony that eight years after the enactment of Vermont's civil-union law, equal protection had not been achieved. Massachusetts and Connecticut are the only states to recognize same-sex marriages.

Gays and lesbians in New Jersey keep hoping that lawmakers will take the next step and allow same-sex marriage.

Veronica Kairos of Mount Laurel compared the barricades of civil unions to a labyrinth. When she applied to change her name on her passport to go to Paris to celebrate her 10th anniversary, for example, the federal government required a marriage certificate to make the change.

Kairos hired a lawyer and spent close to $1,000 to expedite the process and eventually went to Paris, she said. None of that, she believes, would have been necessary had New Jersey recognized her partnership as a marriage rather than a civil union.

For now, she remains optimistic that the state will grant marriage equality to gays and lesbians.

"I believe New Jersey is the kind of place that doesn't tolerate discrimination," Kairos said. "Once it's shown and documented, I believe New Jersey is the kind of place that wants to address that. That's part of why I chose to live in New Jersey."

Contact staff writer Adrienne Lu at 609-989-8990 or alu@phillynews.com.