From Rose Arce
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TRENTON, New Jersey (CNN) -- In a decision likely to stoke the contentious election-year debate over same-sex marriage, the New Jersey Supreme Court has ruled that state lawmakers must provide the rights and benefits of marriage to gay and lesbian couples.
The high court on Wednesday gave legislators six months to either change state marriage laws to include same-sex couples, or come up with another mechanism, such as civil unions, that would provide the same protections and benefits.
The court's vote was 4-to-3. But the ruling was more strongly in favor of same-sex marriage than that split would indicate. The three dissenting justices argued the court should have extended full marriage rights to homosexuals, without kicking the issue back to legislators.
Advocates of same-sex marriage hailed the decision, a respite from many defeats this year in courts nationwide.
"That is wonderful news," said Cindy Meneghin, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit by seven same-sex couples that prompted Wednesday's decision. "We can only hope that that means marriage, because that is the only way they can give us full equality." (Watch a couple say why they want to call their 32-year relationship marriage -- 2:01 )
Garden State Equality, a gay rights group, announced that three state legislators plan to introduce a bill to legalize same-sex marriage. In an e-mail to supporters, the chairman of the group, Steven Goldstein, vowed that only "over our dead bodies will we settle for less than 100 percent marriage equality."
Gay marriage opponents promise to fight
Those angered by the ruling predicted it will reinvigorate the fight in Congress for a federal constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage nationwide.
"They took the future of marriage out of the hands of the people of New Jersey," said Matt Daniels of the Alliance for Marriage, which supports the amendment. "They are holding a gun to the head of the legislature of New Jersey and saying pick between two bullets -- one that allows civil unions and one that allows marriage."
Sen. Sam Brownback a leading social conservative in Congress, said the New Jersey decision "warrants swift, decisive action by Congress in the form of passage of the Marriage Protection Amendment."
"Huge social changes should be decided by the people and their elected representatives and should not be forced by the courts," the Kansas Republican said in a written statement.
The federal amendment, which President Bush supports, has stalled in Congress. It has so far failed to get the necessary two-thirds vote to be submitted to the states for ratification.
Opponents of same-sex marriage contend the New Jersey decision could have a national impact because the state imposes no residency requirements for people seeking marriage. In essence, it could open the door for gay and lesbian couples from other states to marry in New Jersey and challenge laws against same-sex marriage in their own states.
The gay marriage debate intensified in 2004 when Massachusetts became the first and only state to allow gay and lesbian couples to marry. The state does not allow nonresidents to marry there, however.
Precedent in Vermont
The decision mirrors the one made in 1999 by Vermont's highest court, which prompted its legislature to create civil unions for same-sex couples, with the same rights and benefits enjoyed by heterosexuals. (Opinion -- pdf)
The New Jersey high court held that state laws prohibiting gay and lesbian couples from receiving the "financial and social benefits and privileges" of marriage violate the equal protection clause of the New Jersey Constitution and served no "legitimate governmental purpose."
Noting that New Jersey already prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation, the high court said there was "no rational basis for giving gays and lesbians full civil rights as individuals while, on the other hand, giving them an incomplete set of rights when they enter into committed same-sex relationships."
The justices wrote: "The issue is not about the transformation of the traditional definition of marriage, but about the unequal dispensation of benefits and privileges to one of two similarly situated classes of people."
However, they stopped short of finding that same-sex couples have a fundamental right to marry.
The ruling said the court would not "speculate" on whether legislation creating civil unions identical to marriage would pass constitutional muster "and will not presume that a difference in name is of constitutional magnitude."
The justices also held that the state's domestic partnership law for same-sex couples, passed in 2004, is not an adequate substitute for marriage rights because it provides gay and lesbians with fewer benefits and rights and has more stringent requirements for establishing partnerships than for marrying.
A hot button election topic
The issue of gay marriage has roiled American politics for more than a decade and on November 7 voters in eight states will decide whether to amend their constitutions to ban gay and lesbian couples from marrying.
Same-sex marriage advocates have suffered five high-profile court losses since July, including decisions in the high courts of New York and Washington state upholding state laws prohibiting marriage for gay or lesbian couples.
State supreme courts in Nebraska and Georgia also upheld constitutional amendments outlawing same-sex marriage that had been struck down by lower courts.
And earlier this month, an appellate court in California upheld the constitutionality of state laws against same-sex marriage, a decision now being appealed to the California Supreme Court.
The court said the state's existing Domestic Partnership Act, similar to one adopted in several other states, including California, doesn't go far enough in protecting the rights of gay couples.
Episcopal pastors Mark Harris and Denis Winslow, plaintiffs in the New Jersey suit, now have one dream to fulfill: to join the countless heterosexual couples they've married.
"We see it as a civil right that we're denied," Winslow said. "Even though we pay first-class taxes, we are treated as second-class citizens.
"We don't have that freedom to exercise our relationship in a practical way, dare I say, spiritual way."
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