In an out-of-court settlement of a class action suit filed in June by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of gay and lesbian families, Superior Court Judge Sybil Moses cleared the way for gay or lesbian couples to adopt children jointly.
Gay people in New Jersey, as well as about half of the nation's states, are allowed to adopt children, but a partner or ``spouse'' had to petition separately, resulting in extensive delays and legal costs.
``New Jersey is the first state in the country to agree to treat gay and unmarried couples the same as married couples,'' said Michael Adams, an attorney with the ACLU's Lesbian and Gay Rights Project.
The settlement ruled that the state Division of Youth and Family Services policy of not permitting joint adoption by same-sex couples was inconsistent with its policy of doing what is in the best interests of the child.
The state will not appeal the ruling, which now has the force of law, officials said.
``The settlement guarantees that all couples seeking to adopt will be judged only by their ability to love and support a child,'' said Lenora Lapidus, the legal director of the state's ACLU chapter.
A gay male couple in October won the right to jointly adopt their two-year-old foster son, who they had raised since birth. Michael Galluccio and Jon Holden were part of the class action suit settled Wednesday.
``This is a victory about goodness and equality,'' said Holden at an ACLU news conference after the settlement was announced.
``We're good people, just like everybody else,'' said Holden, who along with Galluccio won the right to adopt their foster son Adam in October, setting the stage for Wednesday's decision.
Kate Kendell, the executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights in San Francisco, estimated that there are about 8 to 13 million children in the United States being raised by gay parents.
Wednesday's decision also applies to unmarried heterosexual couples.
Currently two states, New Hampshire and Florida, bar outright the adoption of children by gay people.