TRENTON, Oct 26: New Jersey's highest court guaranteed gay couples the same rights as married heterosexuals but left it up to state lawmakers to decide if such unions can be called marriage.
''Times and attitudes have changed,'' the New Jersey Supreme Court said in a nuanced 90-page ruling that is certain to fuel America's culture wars two weeks ahead of November 7 elections, when eight states will vote on same-sex marriage laws.
Advocates on both sides declared varying degrees of victory and disappointment on the latest twist in a battle that has divided the country over issues of gay culture and morality.
Same-sex marriage has faced legal and political roadblocks in much of the United States and has been a hot-button issue since 2003, when Massachusetts's highest court ruled it was unconstitutional to ban gay marriage, paving the way for America's first same-sex marriages in May 2004.
Some New Jersey gay activists pledged to stop at nothing short of full marriage rights, while opponents took heart that the court chose to give the legislature a role in deciding the issue.
''We now hold that ... committed same-sex couples must be afforded on equal terms the same rights and benefits enjoyed by married, opposite-sex couples,'' the court said in a 4-3 ruling.
Gay advocates must now ''appeal to their fellow citizens whose voices are heard through their popularly elected representatives,'' the court said.
It gave the legislature six months to either amend the state's marriage statutes to include gay people, or write a new law in which same-sex couples ''would enjoy the rights of civil marriage.'' In the 2004 election, many states had ballot initiatives limiting gay marriage -- a factor which was credited with boosting the vote for President George W Bush.
RIGHTS ADVOCATES BRACE FOR BACKLASH On November 7, voters in eight states will decide on constitutional amendments limiting gay marriage or unions.
The court stressed its decision ''significantly advances the civil rights of gays and lesbians,'' and Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, braced for a backlash.
''Sadly, we know that politicians on the right and their allies in the anti-gay industry will do everything in their power to exploit this decision for political gain on November 7.
Again they will denounce 'activist judges' and defame gay people and our families to inflame their base,'' Foreman said.
Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council, declared that the New Jersey ruling ''should give momentum to the eight states with marriage protection amendments on the November ballot.'' Kris Mineau, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, said he was disappointed the court found a constitutional right to same-sex unions, which other states have denied.
''This again emphasized the need for a federal marriage amendment. We can't have 50 different definitions between 50 states. We are a union,'' Mineau said.
At a news conference in Newark, plaintiffs in the lawsuit demanded full marriage rights for gays and lesbians, saying anything less would make them second-class citizens.
''Civil unions leave me cold, empty -- a marriage is a marriage,'' said Dennis Winslow, 56, who is an Episcopalian pastor as is his partner, Mark Lewis, 46. ''We want to get married in this state with the blessing of the legislature.'' Lesbian couple Marcye and Karen Nicholson-McFadden wanted marriage as they raise their 7-year-old son and a 3-year-old daughter. ''I hope to one day say this is my wife,'' said Marcye, surrounded by Karen and their children. ''We will not be relegated as a separate class.''