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If no Senate Democrats jump ship by the time the legislative session ends on Jan. 13, a bill recognizing same-sex couples as legal entities should pass and become law, making New Jersey only the second state to ratify such civil unions. The Domestic Partnership Act, A-3743, passed the Assembly on Dec. 15 in a 41-28 vote with nine abstentions and two members not voting. The Senate Judiciary Committee the same day recommended passage of an identical bill. Because of its fiscal impact, the bill must be considered by the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee. The legislation was introduced in June after seven same-sex couples sued, alleging that their constitutional rights were violated when they were not granted marriage certificates by their local registrars. Mercer County Judge Linda Feinberg dismissed the suit, Lewis v. Harris, ruling that the issue should be settled by the Legislature, not the courts. The plaintiffs appealed, saying constitutional rights are at stake. The act provides that two people of the same sex who are 18 years of age or older may jointly execute and file an Affidavit of Domestic Partnership with their local registrar, along with a fee to be set later, if a number of conditions are satisfied, including the sharing of a household and of finances. The bill does not grant same-sex couples the same rights as those of married couples, but allows such partners to become involved in making decisions over health care and medical benefits. The measure makes no provisions for equitable distribution of assets and property if a same-sex partnership dissolves. Gov. James McGreevey says he does not support the idea of same-sex marriage, but would sign the bill as now written. The Assembly, voting largely along party lines, passed the bill by the minimum vote needed. Opponents voted against the bill on moral grounds, arguing that it amounts to sanctioning same-sex marriage, or on fiscal grounds, saying it could cost businesses and governments by opening the door to health and pension benefits for unmarried couples. Until Jan. 14, when Democrats take over both houses, the Senate remains split, with 20 Democrats and 20 Republicans. If Democrats hold their support, the bill appears to have enough votes to pass. With the exception of Sen. Peter Inverso, R-Mercer, the Senate Judiciary Committee recommended passage. Sen. Robert Martin, R-Morris, said that while he wished the legislation went further, he would support it. The Senate may act on the bill when it reconvenes today. There are three more voting sessions before Jan. 13.

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