SPARTA-They are just like any other young couple. They are in their 20s, both live and work in Sussex County, and are currently helping to raise a 9-year-old child. On a regular basis, they attend baseball games, help with their son's homework, and parent to the best of their abilities. Although they live together, they are not married, which means they cannot file for joint taxes. It also means that they do not enjoy lower medical, automobile, or renter's insurance. They both feel that marriage is an avenue they would like to pursue. However, the choice is not theirs. It is in the hands of the government. Both partners in the relationship are women, and the state of New Jersey does not recognize gay marriage, although last week it moved closer by approving civil unions. If it were up to this couple, they would have already made their lifetime commitment to one another. Under their current status with the state, they are considered to be domestic partners, which provides some but not all of the legal benefits of marriage. One partner, who went by the name "Jennifer" for this story, said that she was grateful that even before the change, her job offered her partner benefits because it does not have to by law, but added that it is still not equal to what married couples receive. "Unlike any other working person insuring a dependent, whether it be a spouse or a child, an extra tax comes out of my paycheck for having domestic partner benefits," said Jennifer. "Why does my paycheck look different from someone's who's married?" Currently, Massachusetts is the only state in the country allowing people of the same sex to wed. Jennifer and her partner are currently planning to make the trip to Massachusetts to make their union legal. They plan to then come back to New Jersey to celebrate their union with friends and family in Sussex County. Jennifer said that growing up in Sparta has always caused her to hide her different lifestyle. "It is a very conservative place, and growing up, I had a fear of who I was," said Jennifer. Moving to another town but staying within the county, she "came out" six years ago and hopes to see Sussex County "make progress" when it comes to gay equity issues like marriage. "What I don't think many people understand is just how normal our home is," said Jennifer, explaining that her life does not consist of club scenes or pride festivals, images that are often portrayed of her lifestyle. "As a family, we live no differently than other people in Sussex County," she said. "I work, and I put my son on the bus in the morning, and his life consists of sports, after-school activities, and school plays." Jennifer's son recalled the story of when he once brought in a picture of his mom and partner for a school project called "The Star of the Week." After telling the class who they were, one child asked him what a partner was. "You'll understand when you're older," was his response. When asked how he felt about the issue, the young boy said that he does not know why his parents would not be allowed to marry. "If two people love each other, what does it matter? They are able to give me everything that I need," he said, adding that he was proud of his parents. "Although New Jersey has begun to recognize domestic partnerships, they are still failing to recognize the fact that this is a committed relationship that should be called a marriage. We wear rings just as heterosexual couples and raise our family just as heterosexuals," said Jennifer in an interview this week. "As a couple, we are pleased to have some of the same rights, such as filing for joint tax returns and being able to make medical decisions for each other. I still have to call the person I love my partner rather than my wife." The View from the Pulpit By Lori Price Stanhope - For the most part, mainstream religions derive their viewpoints concerning homosexuality and same sex unions from their interpretations of the Bible. The U.S. Constitution's guarantee of religious freedom means that the government may not tell any religious group what to believe or what rituals to perform, and that includes decisions about what marriages should be celebrated. If any state ever attempted to control such issues, the First Amendment would protect these religious groups. Andrew Koppelman, professor of law and political science at Northwestern University, writes in the Online Newshour publication, "No state has ever tried to compel the Catholic Church to marry divorced persons whose former spouses are still living, or Orthodox Jewish rabbis to celebrate marriages between Jews and Gentiles. So, legally recognizing same-sex marriages would not require any religious group to celebrate such marriages. On the other hand, when culture changes, religion tends to follow." This conflicting stand of protectionism and acceptance is mirrored across most faiths' leadership and congregations. "The Catholic religion needs to lighten up with their homophobic views and realize that the world is changing and so must the church. We lose so many members because of antiquated rules that no longer fit into our society," said a local Catholic recently, an active member of the Blessed Kateri Roman Church in Sparta who chooses to remain anonymous. "I don't know how gay marriages will affect the political society, but I would think that religions should or would be the most accepting." According to the writings of Jessica Steinmetz, author of Your Guide to Christianity, being married in the eyes of the Roman Catholic Church means to be open to creating life. That is nature, and God's plan. Catholicism views homosexuality as a tendency, desire, or an urge. Being homosexual alone is not a sin. Homosexual acts however are considered sins and do not fit the marriage criterion of creating new life, so therefore Catholicism cannot accept homosexual (same sex) marriages. The pastor of The United Methodist Church in Stanhope, Harry DeKolf explains that clergy in his denomination are prohibited to officiate at same sex marriages or face disciplinary actions if they choose to participate in such ceremonies. However, the church's stand against homosexuality is not so clear cut. The Methodist Book of Discipline, which serves as the doctrine, the belief system of the faith, states that "although we do not condone the practice of homosexuality, and consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching, we affirm that God's grace is available to all." "Personally, I believe that anyone who walks through the doors of the church should be welcomed and ministered to, regardless of their sexual orientation or marriage status for that matter," said DeKolf. The moral dilemma is also faced by the members of the different churches. "I resist taking sides on the issue of gay marriage because it always comes down to your position on homosexuality: is it or isn't it a sin? And I don't know anyone who can answer that question. So, I just follow what I've been taught as a Christian, which is to treat everyone with kindness and compassion, regardless of the choices they make concerning marriage," said Trish Spinelli of Sparta and a member of St. Mary's Episcopal Church in Sparta. "I don't need to understand anyone's choices, the only thing I can control is my response to them, which again should be guided by the Christian principals of kindness and compassion." In a March 2004 Episcopal News Service publication, the deputy director, Rev. Jan Nunley writes that President George W. Bush's endorsement of a proposed Federal Marriage Amendment banning same-sex marriage has generated a call for restraint and continued discussion about the issue, from the presiding bishop and other Episcopal bishops. In the meantime, advocacy groups within the Episcopal Church are both in favor of and against the legislation. Collectively, a number of advocacy groups against the amendment called it "clear and unabashed discrimination against gays and lesbians and their families. It will do nothing to defend the institution of marriage and everything to deny equal rights under the law to a segment of the population." The opposite view has been taken by the American Anglican Council, which declared its support for the marriage amendment stating that it is "designed to protect both marriage and democracy in the U.S. by preserving the legal status of marriage from court redefinition". The OASIS ministry of the Episcopal Church, according to its mission statement, is a ministry of cultural and racial diversity welcoming all who experience prejudice and oppression because of their sexual orientation or expression. The ministry offers a national list for those participating congregations to be included in. The list contains only those parishes affiliated with an OASIS ministry, which declare themselves as safe spaces for homosexual, bisexual, and transgender Christians to worship and feel welcomed. The various Jewish denominations have different viewpoints in some cases concerning homosexuality. Traditional Judaism considers homosexual activity as an abomination, and thus absolutely against Jewish law. The Conservative Judaism movement does not ordain homosexuals as rabbis or cantors because these positions are considered the most important role models of the faith. Although homosexual marriages or commitment ceremonies are not approved, the Conservative movement does allow homosexual men and women to otherwise participate fully in synagogue life. It views homosexuality as a non-fulfillment of one of the 613 mitzvot. The American Reform and the Reconstructionist movements on the other hand have "modernized" their doctrine concerning the controversial topic, by rejecting the traditional views in all areas of homosexuality. They do ordain homosexual Jews as Rabbis and Cantors and are permitted to perform homosexual marriages.