TRENTON, N.J. (AP) _ New Jersey's Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that same-sex couples are entitled to the same rights as heterosexuals in New Jersey, but that lawmakers must determine whether the state will honor gay marriage or some other form of civil union.
Advocates on both sides of the issue had believed the relatively liberal New Jersey high court had the best chance of approving gay marriages since Massachusetts became the only state to do so in 2003.
But the high court stopped short of fully approving gay marriage in the state, and gave lawmakers 180 days to rewrite marriage laws to either include same-sex couples or create new civil unions.
``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,'' the court said in its 4-3 ruling.
Opponents of gay marriage have won court victories this year in New York, Washington state, Nebraska and Georgia. Over the past two years, constitutions in 16 states have been amended to ban same-sex unions.
While New Jersey lawmakers voted to allow domestic partnerships in 2004, they have been reluctant to delve into the sensitive issue of marriage. The partnerships offer gays and lesbians benefits including the ability to visit a companion in the hospital, inherit their possessions if no will has been crafted, and healthcare coverage for state workers.
The ruling stops short of the full marriage that the high court in Massachusetts granted gay couples, but is similar to a 1999 ruling in Vermont. Lawmakers in that state created civil unions which offer the benefits, but not the name of marriage.