It was a shotgun wedding for New Jersey lawmakers, who acted on same-sex marriage only with the barrel of the state supreme court's gun pointed their way. But they did act, and what is more, they did so in a way that could be a model for other reluctant states.
The law conspicuously avoids using the word "marriage," but otherwise provides equal protection under the law for homosexuals to form civil unions. Under its provisions, homosexuals will be covered by laws on such matters as inheritance, power of attorney, custody, prenuptial agreements and, yes, divorce. Just like other human beings.
The state thus joins Vermont and Connecticut as the only states offering civil unions for gays. Massachusetts is the only state to allow marriage. California's domestic partnership law provides a number of rights to same-sex couples.
Purists, depending on their politics, will argue either that marriage and anything like it should be reserved for men and women, or that equal protection requires New Jersey's gays to have the option of actual marriage. But society moves slowly and marriage, with its religious associations, invites layers of intense and complicated responses.
That's why we like New Jersey's approach, and not because it splits the difference. It doesn't. The far right, including the country's compassionate conservative-in-chief, wants nothing to do with laws that allow homosexuals the equal benefits of social structure. They prefer to deny even partnership rights to gays, the better to criticize the nonsanctioned lifestyles left to them. New Jersey's new law gives them no reason to take heart.
But it's fair to acknowledge the meaning of marriage to many Americans, especially as it is filtered through their religious sensibilities. Civil unions may not amount to full immersion in the river of equality, but it's not just sticking a toe in, either. Vermont, Connecticut and now New Jersey have waded far into the water, and there will be no turning back.
Prejudice dies hard. Not so many decades ago, a hypocritical strain of Americans justified slavery and racial discrimination by citing biblical authority. Now, bias against gays is one of the few avenues left for those whose pinched outlook demands the ability to refuse basic rights and responsibilities to some group or other.
No one has any illusions that civil union for gays is about to sweep the country. This will be a state-by-state process, and in states such as Virginia, where voters last month voted to ban gay marriage or anything remotely like it, the change may take a long time to occur, if it ever does.
But New Jersey has charted a course that other states would do well to follow. We hope they will and that, once its new governor takes office, New York will be the next in line.